Commentary: Beyond regular security, another way to prevent extremist attacks

Spain’s counter-terrorism laws are among the toughest in Europe. Its immigration policies are restrictive and the razor-wire fences at its borders are menacing. Yet this didn’t deter a group of young, male, Muslim immigrants – some born in Morocco, some in Spain to Moroccan immigrant families – from turning violently on their neighbors on August 17, killing 15 people in a series of attacks in and around Barcelona.

Spanish Civil Guards escort one of four men accused of involvement in an Islamist cell behind a van attack in Barcelona last week, in Tres Cantos, Spain, August 21, 2017. REUTERS/Juan Medina

We don’t yet know much about how and why they became radicalized, but it’s likely they felt unwanted in Spain, where, according to a 2016 research paper by sociologist Francisco Javier Ullán de la Rosa of the University of Alicante, two decades of surveys show that “rejection against the culturally different in Spain” tends to focus on Moroccans, who comprise the vast majority of the immigrants to Spain from North Africa and the Middle East.

Merely limiting immigration further and ramping up traditional security measures – wider surveillance, quicker deportations, soldiers on the streets – are unlikely to rule out similar violence in the future. European countries reflexively take such steps after every fresh attack, but then extremists strike again anyway.


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Integration, however, is a field where more can be done, arguably with greater impact. Immigration is a permanent aspect of today’s Europe and it requires acceptance of new arrivals to foster healthy societies. Europe must expand its efforts to guide immigrants and refugees from the economically and socially isolated neighborhoods where they land, as many Moroccans in Spain have, into the mainstreams of society. Some innovative programs from Northern Europe, where integration is already part of security policy, can show us how.

The perpetrators of the Spanish attacks, like those in Nice and London and other European cities, weren’t Islamic State operatives sent from abroad, but rather young militants in their 20s, the majority of them European citizens from disenfranchised immigrant communities. These young people, mostly men, can be easy pickings for IS and other radicals who prey on their circumstances and conflicted identities, just as in the Barcelona attack it appears the imam of the perpetrators’ hometown in the foothills of the Pyrenees did.

Europe has made progress in integrating immigrants and their children since the postwar decades, when foreign workers were treated, at best, like guests who wouldn’t stay long and, even if they did, could never really belong to the host nation. In 1999, Germany changed its exclusive citizenship laws to enable non-Germans to qualify to become citizens.  

Studies show that many immigrant communities in Europe remain marginalized. A 2016 study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found that immigrants and refugees learn local European languages slowly and face barriers to higher levels of education. They report difficulty in having their professional qualifications recognized, and face discrimination in many aspects of daily life, according to the OECD. In the EU, joblessness among European-born children of immigrant parents is almost 50 percent higher than among young people with native-born parents.

Nonetheless, experts emphasize that integration is possible if the right policies are in place. That’s where an array of Northern European trailblazing programs, led by Scandinavia, can set a valuable example.  

Integration requires getting more newcomers into the job market quickly, as Germany is doing by allowing refugees waiting for political asylum to enter vocational training programs. The initiative, designed and promoted by Germany’s business community, enables refugees to remain in these programs and stay in Germany even if their bids for asylum are turned down. In Sweden, immigrants are matched with a professional mentor and placed in locations that best fit their education level and work experience – arrivals with agricultural backgrounds going to rural areas, for example. Denmark’s Stepmodel program aids immigrants in securing long-term jobs through subsidized initial employment, combined with on-the-job language instruction and new-skills training. “The earlier migrants enter the labor market,” notes the OECD, “the better their integration prospects in the long run.”

Some European countries – and progressively-minded cities too – have set up measures to improve literacy and language proficiency as soon as possible after immigrants’ arrive. Denmark has a three-year induction program to provide language training for up to five years to refugees. In Germany, the NGO ABCami brings literacy programs for Muslim women into mosques. The Netherlands has pre-schools that focus specifically on teaching children to acquire a second-language.

Ghent in Belgium and Austria’s capital city of Vienna, among others, offer “toolkits” to combat discrimination and racism. Like them, a growing number of European cities have included migrant councils in their administrations, as well as offices that monitor and redress discrimination in work places, the housing sector and public services. Some countries also offer courses in Islamic studies in public schools.

It’s too early to know how effective these programs are. They seem unlikely to reduce the risk of attacks by already-hardened fundamentalists, but government authorities believe that helping those who feel like outcasts to share the fruits of a prosperous society will prevent them taking a militant road.

 “Education and employment promote citizenship and provide the best protection against young people being lured by extremist messages,” said Danish authorities in a 2016 national action plan.  

New integration measures in the aftermath of the carnage in Spain and other European cities are imperative. They might not be a silver bullet, but anything that could reduce the chances of further Barcelona-style attacks is worth a try.

About the Author

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based writer whose most recent book is “Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.”

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.