In an interview with EER, Professor Thomas Renard, Director of the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT), discusses the evolution of terrorism since the nineteenth century until present, highlighting important developments in the counterterrorism sphere, particularly surrounding the birth of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and its aftermath, and its subsequent impact on Europe. Below are excerpts from a discussion with Professor Renard regarding his recent book, “The Evolution of Counter-Terrorism Since 9/11”.
EER: Are there important similarities between the nineteenth-century terrorist movements and Islamist terrorism from the late twentieth century onwards?
TR: Although every comparison has its limits, there are some interesting parallels. Anarchist terrorism was part of a “global wave of terrorism” (in the words of David Rapoport), impacting many countries around the world at the same time, just like Islamist terrorism nowadays. Looking at individual trajectories, one can see interesting parallels as well. Notions such as the crime-terror nexus, which have seen a new focus of research in recent years, could already be seen in the nineteenth century as many anarchist terrorists had a criminal past, and anarchist propaganda praised the “right to steal” (not unlike the notion of “ghanima” promoted by ISIS). Interestingly, some of today’s most effective counterterrorism techniques, such as police infiltration, banning propaganda or the possession of certain weapons, or international cooperation were already largely used against 19th-century anarchists. A number of controversial laws and measures were also adopted to combat terrorism, sometimes in a disproportionate manner (such as the infamous “lois scélérates” of 1893 and 1894 in France). In many ways, history is repeating itself.
EER: Does it make sense to have a “Terrorism Studies” complex, or are the problems too individuated?
TR: Terrorism Studies go back to the 1960s and have progressed significantly over the past two decades. To a large extent, most questions we ask ourselves today remain the same as those raised by the “founding members” decades ago. However, in the meantime, Terrorism Studies have expanded to more disciplines, methodologies and, above all, can rely on more data. As a result, although not always reaching much different answers than before, the approach is more structured and sophisticated. At the same time, I think that many of the most fundamental questions of this field might never be fully answered. This is what makes our field so frustrating and fascinating at the same time.
EER: Where do you think Western states went most wrong in responding to the Islamic State (ISIS) “caliphate”?
TR: In my view, the two main flaws of the Western response pre-date and post-date the “caliphate”. Prior to June 2014, when the “caliphate” was officially proclaimed by ISIS’ leader, Western countries were doing too little to detect violent radicalization and prevent young individuals from traveling to a conflict zone. Although policies focused on the prevention of radicalization had been discussed since the mid-2000s, such policies were mostly non-existent across Europe until 2014. Yet, they could have reduced the number of foreign fighters traveling to Syria and Iraq. After the fall of the “caliphate” in 2019, Western governments could have worked out a solution to close that chapter for good, bringing all foreign fighters to justice and supporting the rebuilding of Syria and Iraq. However, more than three years later, European foreign fighters, as well as children, are still detained in the region. This is, in my view, a moral mistake, as well as a bad policy, as it causes more insecurity than security.
EER: Can you briefly outline why you chose to focus on Belgium?
TR: Belgium is an interesting case study for a number of reasons. First, it has a significant number of residents who have traveled to Syria and Iraq since 2012 — in fact, it has the highest ratio of foreign fighters per capita in Western Europe. Furthermore, Belgium was the first European country attacked by a returning foreign fighter from Syria (in 2014) as well as the last one (in 2016). As such, the country was very much impacted by the most recent jihadist wave, which made it interesting to look at the policy response. Second, as opposed to some other European countries, Belgium’s experience with Islamist terrorism actually goes back to the late 1980s. Therefore, this made it possible to study the evolution of the counterterrorism response over a longer period of time. Finally, Belgium has been largely ignored or neglected in the literature, at least until recently, which justified, in itself, a case study.
EER: In the book, you note that you do not quite come to a theory of counterterrorism, but you at least identify, and to an extent assemble, the pieces. Can you explain this?
TR: Many people write about counterterrorism — mostly as a practice but sometimes as a policy or a doctrine. However, there are very few definitions of counterterrorism: what is it, exactly? And, indeed, very few efforts to conceptualize or theorize counterterrorism. I think this still constitutes a gap in research, which I hope some others will contribute to fill. In my book, I decided to treat counterterrorism as an ordinary public policy. Although counterterrorism policies can be “exceptional” in that they create many rules of exception (such as “state of emergency”, etc.), such policies are actually the result of relatively ordinary policy-making processes. Thus, in my book, I have drawn from some key concepts and learnings from the public policy theory literature to make sense of counterterrorism policy-making. However, I believe that more can still be done in this aspect, and there is a need to cover other aspects of counterterrorism in a more theoretical manner.
EER: The book outlines the expansion of the concept of “counterterrorism”, so that it does not just cover suppressing active terrorist movements, but the “upstream prevention and downstream rehabilitation”. Does the inclusion of this preventive aspect against what we now call “radicalization” make sense for inclusion in counterterrorism work in your view, or are the trade-offs not worth it?
TR: In my book, I argue that the expansion of the scope of counterterrorism — more upstream (prevention) and downstream (rehabilitation) — is indeed a significant paradigm shift that occurred somewhere in the past decade. The development of P/CVE policies is welcome in my view. Early detection and prevention of deviant behaviors is a good practice. It allows intervention before it is too late — for the potential victims and perpetrators. For years, researchers had called to work more on the root causes of terrorism and on the conducive environment to radicalization. These policies, however imperfect, seek to do just that.
This is not without causing frictions, however. The two main frictions that I would highlight here are: (1) the security mindset (counterterrorism) and the social mindset (socio-prevention) are not easy to reconcile and tensions appear where the two mindsets overlap or are forced to cooperate, as they increasingly do in the new counterterrorism configuration; and (2) the counterterrorism agenda is ever-expanding, adding every time a new layer to the “CT glacier”, albeit with an ever-decreasing marginal added value for counterterrorism, and at a higher cost on fundamental rights. Thus, in my view, there are many positive aspects in the evolution of counterterrorism, but also very serious concerns.
EER: Some have argued that the European Union should give up on the idea of intelligence, contending it is a false mirage that provides a dangerous sense of security that does not exist and cannot exist. But in your book, you are more sanguine about the effect the integration of states has had on counterterrorism. Can you elaborate on this?
TR: Counterterrorism is a core sovereign competence and, as such, most of it occurs at the national level. However, it is striking to note how much international cooperation — and notably European cooperation — has deepened over the past decade. The amount of data, information and intelligence that is being shared at the European level has evolved exponentially over the years. A higher threat level and the transnationality of many terror cells, such as the Paris-Brussels cell, have clearly contributed to lift some of the ancient reluctances to cooperation. In Europe, counterterrorism cooperation occurs through EU institutions (EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, Europol, Frontex…) but also through informal “intelligence clubs” like the “Counter-Terrorism Group”, as well as through bilateral cooperation between agencies.
This is a significant evolution, which might not have occurred if it wasn’t for the “caliphate” era. It is hard to predict if the intensity of that cooperation will remain in every aspect, in the context of a lower terrorist threat. But useful tools and protocols have been established, which can be activated and used by member states on a needed basis. That is certainly a new strength in the global counterterrorism architecture.
EER: Is Belgium likely to cope better or worse, legally and societally, with returning ISIS foreign fighters? Can you outline why?
TR: There are two aspects to this question. First, regarding ISIS fighters that are still in Syria and Iraq, Belgium is now well-equipped to prosecute them, manage them in prison, work towards their rehabilitation and monitor them post-sentencing. I do not think that much more is needed. The other aspect is Belgium’s preparedness to anticipate and prevent future waves of foreign fighters. In that regard, the mobilization of foreign volunteers for Ukraine suggests that the services are indeed still on alert. However, maintaining that level of alert and investment over the long term, when there are many other security priorities, will be a real challenge in itself — for Belgium or for any other country.
EER: Thank you very for answering our interview questions.