Jihadis aren't winning battle - the figures just don't stack up
Last year, 25,000 people died on Europe's roads while terrorists killed 150. We should not let them rattle us
Published 27/03/2016 | 02:30
Last week's attacks in Brussels were the third instance of hyper-terrorism in Western Europe in just 14 months. Thirty one people are dead. Many more are injured. Reports say the Belgian capital remains tense as security services search for the perpetrators and others involved. Fear and anger at what has happened are understandably being felt by all right-thinking people in that city and across the continent.
It is in no way to disrespect the victims or downplay the enormity of what happened last week, but perspective is always needed - both in terms of the scale of the Islamist terrorism threat and the response to it.
How great is the threat? Those who are expert in jihadi groups warn of the possibility of more attacks. They are almost certainly correct. But it is by no means assured that last week's attacks, along with the two atrocities in France last year, herald the start of more frequent mass killings in western European cities.
Between the London Tube and bus bombings of July 2005 and the Paris attacks of January 2015, there were no acts of Islamist hyper-terrorism in Western Europe.
After the London bombings and the attacks on Madrid in the previous year, there were fears that a new era of repeated attacks had dawned in both countries. Then, as now, there is much talk of alienation and radicalisation. At that time, Britain and Spain had been leading participants in the US-led invasion of Iraq and their forces were stationed in the country as it descended into bloody conflict.
There are always those who want to blame the West for every ill on the planet, but the war of choice in Iraq was a monumental mistake - arguably the single greatest error in US foreign policy since that country became a superpower.
It was a mistake on many levels, including the manner in which it increased the sense of alienation among Muslims living in countries such as Britain and Spain (that is not, of course, to give the slightest shred of justification for the Madrid and London attacks).
Despite the fears of a decade ago, neither country has suffered fresh large-scale attacks. There is some evidence that terrorist networks in both countries have grown in size or sophistication, but that should not be overstated. Nor is there a great deal of evidence that the extremists are gaining control over swathes of Muslim communities, as, say, the IRA did in Northern Ireland or ETA did in the Basque country.
All of this suggests that the overwhelming majority of the million Muslims who live in Spain and the three million who have made their home in Britain do not ascribe to the murderous ideology of the extremists.
Whatever resentments some may feel, only handfuls of people appear to want to involve themselves in mass murder.
What of France and Belgium?
France was steadfast in its opposition to the invasion of Iraq, as was Belgium. France's then president Jacques Chirac was a cold, hard pragmatist who understood the world well and never bought into the nation-building notions of ideologues in Washington. Those ideologues became intoxicated with their own sense of power, which, when combined with their shallow understandings of the Middle East and what could be achieved there politically, turned Iraq from a totalitarian nightmare under Saddam to a sectarian bloodbath with a thin veneer of democracy.
But despite France's non-involvement in that conflict, it suffered two appalling attacks last year. That proves, if it even needed proving, that the ultra-extremists do not need much in the way of excuses to engage in mass murder.
The situation in Europe is now arguably more dangerous than a decade ago. The rise of so-called Isil has brought the death cult of jihadis to a new level. That hundreds of European Muslims have been blooded in Syria and Iraq over the past half-decade may make them more of a threat than, say, the London Tube bombers of 2005, who had no combat experience and only the most tenuous connections to terrorist organisations outside Britain.
France has, by a distance, the largest Muslim population in Europe after Turkey. At five million - bigger than this country's entire population - one in 12 French citizens is an adherent to that faith. If even 1pc - 50,000 people - of that community was prepared to support the jihadis, France would be close to civil war. Paris would be more akin to a strife-torn Middle Eastern city than the city it actually is.
That is all the more so given how easy it is for determined obsessives to take human life. Rudimentary but very deadly explosives can be made relatively easily, as the London bombers showed. Detonating these explosives in a crowded bar or while mingling with the throngs leaving a sporting event is easier still if one believes that ending one's own life in such circumstances will lead to eternal bliss.
Last year in France, 360 people died on the roads in July. Across the EU, 25,000 lost their lives in road traffic incidents in 2015.
This death toll is many multiples that of terrorist-related deaths. It is important to say this only because there is a tendency to overstate the chances of being caught up in a terrorist attack. The more that the risks are overstated in the public consciousness, the more we give the terrorists a victory by allowing them to terrorise us.
Nor are we impotent. Much more can be done to contain the threat, and that is before it might become necessary to consider curbing liberties as a price worth paying to be safer and feel safer.
From now on, armed gardai will patrol Dublin airport and port. This a sensible precaution. It should help deter any would-be terrorists and ensure a more effective and rapid response in the very unlikely event that an attack ever takes place. While nobody welcomes a development that involves more military hardware being on display on a daily basis, it is not a high price to pay.
Another measure which will have little or no impact on liberties or on the financial cost of countering the threat is greater co-operation among security services. After the Madrid bombings in 2004, a counter-terrorism co-ordinating unit was set up involving the 28 members of the EU. But just last month the man who runs it, Gilles de Kerchove, issued a report saying that co-operation was insufficient and that "further urgent improvement in information sharing and border security are necessary".
If better information sharing is largely costless in terms of either cash or freedom, more border security may be a different matter. Taking the train from London to Paris involves jumping through more hoops than, for instance, taking the train from Paris to Brussels, at least until recently.
That is because Britain is not in the EU's free travel zone, known as the Schengen area. With the migration crisis already putting huge strain on the open-border agreement in force among those countries who are members of Schengen (Ireland is not a member), there is a real chance it may be suspended.
The temporary reintroduction of border check points would be hugely inconvenient. But only if it were to become permanent would it cause real damage - it would make Europe less prosperous by making cross-border commerce more difficult. But Europe is still a distance away from permanently dismantling Schengen.
That is as it should be. There are plenty of measures which can be taken to target the jihadis before the point is arrived at when reductions in freedoms have to be imposed in order to make us safer. It is imperative that the scale of the threat is not exaggerated, resulting in measures being taken that are disproportionate and possibly even counterproductive.