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Terrorism expert: after Brussels attack, it's time to 'mobilize European resilience'

Deadly blasts rocked Brussels on Tuesday. DW spoke to International Center for Counter-Terrorism's Peter Knoope about how this could happen so soon after Paris and what EU countries need to do to combat future attacks.

Deutsche Welle: It's been four months since "Islamic State" (IS) terrorists carried out deadly attacks in Paris that claimed 130 lives. On Tuesday, Brussels was the site of another massive attack. How could this happen so soon after Paris?

Peter Knoope: This is very serious - and don't forget about recent attacks in Istanbul, Egypt, Tunisia, Nigeria. The frequency, the intensity, of terrorist attacks has increased over the last couple of years tremendously. So it's expanding in terms of geographic space and it's increasing in frequency. It's very worrisome.

Terrorists use violence to intimidate and spread fear with the aim of achieving a political goal. After revelations that the Paris attackers came from Brussels, the city has been on high alert. There have been several lockdowns and highly-publicized raids. Is this pre-attack fear part of the terrorists' strategy?

Yes. Threatening to attack is enough to make people fearful, frightened and create anxiety in society. Sometimes all you need to do is to threaten and it makes people frightened, so the actual violence is not always necessary to create the impact. So, yes, that is part, as is the fact that Islamic State has threatened Europe, Rome more specifically, with crossing the Mediterranean from Libya. All those elements are part of strategic communication warfare by IS.

Belgien Brüssel Metro Explosion Evakuierung Fahrgäste

"Everybody who works at or who has ever worked at the European institutions has gone through the same metro stations many, many times. It's the heart of the European machinery," says Knoope

What message does an attack on Brussels send?

This is targeting the European environment and it's strategically a very important message.

The other part is that the Belgian police and the authorities have always been very proud that they have protected the European institutions very well. Today, that pride has been damaged. And that, in itself, is going to affect the authorities in Belgium and the whole European environment.

This is a potential threat to European stability and that's exactly what terrorists want. The Union should get their act together and find the correct answer. Paris has proven that resilience is also there and it's strong. I'm sure there's a lot of resilience in Europe as a whole and mobilizing that resilience and mobilizing communities to stop the violence is something that can happen.

Belgien Brüssel Flughafen Zaventem Explosion Evakuierung

Travelers and employees evacuated Brussels Airport following deadly explosions. Shattered glass panels can be seen in the upper right of the picture

Belgium's security forces have been criticized often in recent months. For one, Belgium has the most foreign fighters per capita to join IS in Syria and Iraq. Also, details of the response to the Paris attacks point to a slow, disorganized Belgian police structure. What counter-terrorism measures has Belgium implemented since November?

Well it's basically related to gathering intelligence. But there's no two ways about it: there has been an intelligence failure. Eighty-percent terrorist attacks that are prevented are because of civilians. Somebody who goes to a law enforcement agent to report: "My brother is saying funny things. My neighbor is doing weird stuff." If that first signal doesn't happen, then the whole security machinery doesn't work. I'm afraid that part of the problem is that Belgian authorities have no connectivity to the communities where these things are organized.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel and French President Francois Hollande give a press conference after the capture of Salah Abdeslam on March 18, 2016

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel and French President Francois Hollande's countries have coordinating closely since the Paris attacks, but Belgian police have been criticized repeatedly for a weak response

You gave an interview in November to the Dutch newspaper Knack in which you said "anger, discontent and anti-Western sentiment" are important factors in understanding terrorists' motives. And then you just mentioned a lack of connection between police and local populations. That sounds like an insurmountable problem. How can police combat anti-Western sentiment?

In the article, I was trying to create the big picture. And the big picture is how the world develops its dichotomies, how "othering" works, how "us and them" are created. How the narratives of terrorists are exploited to create that idea that they are different from us.

If you connect to the communities and visualize that there is nothing "other" about those who are considered others. That they're human beings with the same emotions and the same humanity, then that is the only way forward. It works in other places, so why not do it in Belgium? It's important, it's relevant and it can be done. It's proven in other places that it can be done. I can't see why the Belgians wouldn't be able to do it.

This a definitely a big crisis but it can also be the starting point for reflection and discussions and dialogue. There is the need for that dialogue and this may well be the starting point of it. Why not take advantage of it?

Belgien Polizeieinsatz in Brüssel-Molenbeek

Since the Paris attacks, Belgian authorities have placed the city on lockdown several times to pursue suspects

There's a feeling of helplessness against these attacks right now. Are more attacks inevitable?

We know from research that the immediate impact of such a traumatizing event is that people retreat to their own camp and create more "us and them." And there's a call for strong leadership and a strong reaction. It's a natural reaction to anxiety and fear.

But with time, that will fade and people will have to sit down and rethink how we treat one another and we deal with one another in our societies. That's from all sides. Being "one" instead of being "us and them" is not an easy task, but it needs to be done. We need to overcome the "othering" and the "us and them" thinking even though that is going to be difficult in the coming weeks, but it will come in time.

This interview has been condensed for clarity.

Peter Knoope is an Associate Fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague. He co-founded the institute and was its first director from 2010-2014. Knoope also served as the deputy director of the Policy and Strategy Department of the Dutch National Coordinator for Counter-terrorism.

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