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Thomas de Maizière. Preempting Home-Grown Terrorists

March 18, 2010

BERLIN—Islamist terrorism has in recent years become central to security policy in Germany and many other Western countries. The terrorists' intention is to sow mistrust and stoke fears; their aim is to weaken the democratic rule of law and to shatter citizens' confidence in public institutions. Governments are determined to prevent this, but the reality is that frequent terror alerts tend to increase rather than reduce insecurity among our people.

The debates across Europe on new security laws to fight terrorism have sometimes created the false image that states threaten rather than protect their citizens' freedom. In fact, the often-assumed conflict between freedom and public security does not exist.

Freedom and public security are not irreconcilable opposites. They complement and even depend on each other. Public security is a pre-requisite for freedom, and protecting freedom is at the core of a democratic state's responsibility for public security.

A state's monopoly on the use of force is justified if citizens can rely on it to ensure their security. The prevention of threats, along with law enforcement that involves prosecuting offenders, are crucial responsibilities, but they do not require, as a matter of principle, ever-newer security laws.

Of course, security authorities need suitable tools to fight terrorism. As terrorists take advantage of new technologies, the legal and technical means used by security authorities must adapt accordingly. But terrorism cannot be fought by the security authorities alone.

Prevention is better than repression. We should do everything in our power to avoid radicalization, to interrupt radicalization processes early, and to guide radicalized individuals back into our society and to acceptance of our values.

Yet, in facing a worsening problem of home-grown terrorism, Western countries are often unaware of this radicalization process. To intervene effectively, we need to find answers to three questions: Where and how do people radicalize? Why are they attracted to radical ideas? What can we do to counteract it?

In Germany, radicalization takes place largely through radical mosque communities or private prayer rooms, as well as through the Internet. State surveillance is used as a counter-measure, but it is just as important to work closely with the Muslim population.

Parents, friends, and imams can spot signs of radicalization earlier than security officials can, and they act responsibly by contacting the relevant state agencies in such cases. Security authorities are responsible for monitoring the more visible signs of radicalization, and other state agencies can help potential terrorism recruits to leave extremist environments and become reintegrated into society. Nothing, though, can replace support and help within these young peoples' immediate environment.

The second question—why are some people attracted to radical ideas?—has been explored by researchers and security practitioners, who generally agree that people are more inclined to accept radical ideologies if they feel alienated. This is especially true of young people who have experienced real or even imagined discrimination. Lacking attractive social or professional prospects, such young people often seek a new and more welcoming home within a radical group.

Society's task is to give them a feeling of belonging. That means a new sense of commitment by civil society as a whole. Our societies need to engender greater respect and acknowledgement of others, and to acquire more knowledge about different cultures and religions. We need to create tightly knit networks of personal relations between the members of different social and religious groups.

It is equally important that citizens should consider it their duty to commit themselves to the principles of liberal democracy. It is everyone's task to counter extremism actively and speak out about radical statements, in public and in private.

Muslims have a particular responsibility here. Within their communities, or in social frameworks, they have an opportunity that others do not. Non-Muslims rarely have much contact with Muslims who are in the process of becoming radicalized, and in any case their arguments would not be well received.

The United Kingdom and the Netherlands, in particular, have notched up a number of positive civic-engagement projects involving Muslims. In Germany, we intend to facilitate and support similar contacts with Muslim groups.

But Europe and the Western world must also cooperate more closely with key Muslim countries. We need Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Maghreb countries as partners in the fight against Islamist terrorism, and that means improved operational cooperation between security authorities.

These countries have a clear interest in maintaining their stability. They should be anxious to allow terrorist groups as little room for development as possible. At the same time, it is in our interest to obtain from them as much important information about terrorist structures and activities as we can.

Improved cooperation should not stop there. We need to establish an extended dialogue with Muslim countries, particularly those from which immigrants come, and convince them to accept that their own Islamic authorities have a special responsibility in fighting radicalization. We need each other, and in many areas we can make a difference only if we act together.

Thomas de Maizière is Germany's Interior Minister.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.