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Shutting down immigration won't solve Europe's terrorism problem

Brussels terrorist attack memorial
A makeshift memorial in Brussels remembers the victims of today's attacks
Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images

There's still much we don't know about Tuesday's terror attacks in the Belgian capital of Brussels, but one thing seems inevitable: There will be renewed calls for crackdowns on refugees and migrants in Europe and for limiting Syrian or even Muslim immigration here in the US.

It's already begun. Within hours of the attack, anti–European Union politicians in the UK called the attacks evidence that the EU's "lax border controls" were a danger to British security and implied that EU membership made Britain unsafe. Here in the US, GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz said the US needs to "immediately halt the flow of refugees from countries with a significant ISIS or al-Qaeda presence."

Donald Trump, as he does, went even further, calling for a complete border closure "until we figure out what is going on."

Such calls speak to deep, intuitive fears that many of us feel in the wake of an attack like this one. Terrorism, especially when linked to groups like ISIS, seems like a threat that comes from the outside. So it’s natural to conclude that if we could just keep dangerous outsiders from getting into our countries, we would be safe.

Natural, but wrong.

Europe's terrorist threat, while rising, has come overwhelmingly not from foreigners but from fellow Europeans. And terrorism experts say it's Europeans who've traveled to fight with ISIS and are now coming home, not refugees or migrants, who pose the real threat.

Closing borders and cracking down on refugees won’t make us safer, because that's simply not where the problem comes from — and in the process of not protecting us, it will also hurt innocent people.

Attacks like these tend to be committed by citizens, not foreigners

Salah Abdeslam Arrested in a Raid in Brussels
Onlookers gather outside the building where police arrested Salah Abdeslam in Brussels several days ago.
Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images

While ISIS is indeed a foreign organization, that doesn’t mean that ISIS-planned or ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks are committed by foreigners. So far, the opposite seems to be the case.

Most of the Paris attackers were EU citizens. Salah Abdeslam, who was arrested just days ago in Belgium for his involvement in the Paris attacks, was a Belgian-born French citizen. Abdeslam’s suspected accomplice, Najim Laachraoui, was also a Belgian citizen.

Indeed, as Vox's Michelle Hackman notes, Brussels "is home to a well-oiled underground jihadist pipeline that has sent more than 400 fighters to Syria, making the nation Europe’s largest per capita source of fighters to Syria."

Anti-immigrant sentiment in Belgium means that Muslim youths, though many are natural-born Belgian citizens, are particularly likely to be socially isolated and alienated.

That effect is especially pronounced in the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek, where Abdeslam was apprehended a few days ago. There, Hackman writes, a group called Sharia4Belgium formed "to funnel Belgian citizens into the Syrian war, providing logistical and financial assistance."

These "foreign fighters" — citizens of Western countries who train or fight with groups such as ISIS abroad — are beginning to return home. Their threat comes from the training they received overseas, as well as their ties to terrorist networks.

Last December, the Soufan Group reported that the number of foreign fighters from Western Europe had doubled since June 2014:

(The Soufan Group, December 2015)

None of those fighters would have been stopped by harsher immigration laws. And none of those people would have been kept out by closing Europe’s borders to foreigners or cracking down on refugee flows.

Law enforcement, not border enforcement

Mourners in Paris after the attacks November 2015 terrorist attacks there.
(Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Europe can and should try to keep Europeans from traveling to fight alongside jihadist groups in Iraq or Syria, and keep them from returning if they do. But it's been trying this over the past year and it hasn't really fixed the problem, in part because that problem is much bigger than just ISIS recruits coming home.

The problem is also regular citizens within Europe turning to terrorism, via a process that terrorism experts refer to as radicalization. That doesn't require a trip to Syria. Indeed, Hackman points out, networks in Molenbeek mean that Belgian citizens can become radicalized and develop relationships with other radicalized youths within walking distance of their homes.

So it might seem like the solution is obvious: FIgure out what's causing radicalization and stop it. But as Vox's Jennifer Williams wrote in November, radicalization is complex and unpredictable. The causes vary widely from individual to individual, and can't be reduced to anything as simple or universal as, say, economic marginalization.

Said and Cherif Kouachi, who committed the Charlie Hebdo attacks, were French citizens. So was Mohamed Merah, who killed seven people in the French city of Toulouse in 2012. And Major Nidal Hasan, who attacked Fort Hood in 2009, was a radicalized American Muslim.

The problem gets even harder when you see that returning foreign fighters and "radicalized" individuals are able to commit acts of terrorism in part because they can plug into preexisting criminal networks that are not explicitly terrorist in nature.

As the journalist Joshua Hersh, who reported on Molenbeek after the Paris attacks in late 2015, noted on Twitter today, attacks like this often involve broad networks of people who are not "terrorists" in the traditional sense of the word.

People on the periphery of terrorists’ networks, such as drivers, stash-house operators, and weapons dealers certainly bore a measure of guilt for the attacks they enabled. But many weren’t religious and hadn’t gone to Syria. "They were radicals — in the way that a street gang member might be radical — but they weren’t 'radicalized,'" Hersh tweeted.

Time reports that jihadist networks have tapped into existing organized crime organizations in order to obtain weapons, false documents, and other logistical support. For the criminal organizations, the motivation is financial, not ideological. The point is that European terrorism isn't a self-contained world, and that makes it much harder to combat.

So, as you can see, the real problem here isn't refugees or migrants. It's not even just foreign fighters. There's no reason to believe that refugees or foreigners are the source of these terrorist attacks, so keeping them out won't prevent further attacks. And even if fighters returning from Syria are a potential source of danger, they're citizens — even the most stringent immigration controls wouldn't keep them out.

So why beat up on refugees and claim that terrorist attacks like this are a border security problem? For one thing, it's easy: Blaming outsiders provides people with a simple way to think about the problem and a simple-sounding answer, when in fact any real solution would be much harder.

And because that simple framework is attractive to frightened voters it's also attractive to politicians, particularly those with preexisting desires to shut down immigration.

But these so-called "solutions" aren't just ineffective, they're also harmful. They hurt vulnerable refugees, many of whom have already suffered terrible persecution at the hands of groups like ISIS. This isn't a refugee problem, or a foreigner problem.