Britain Must Not Retreat Into Its 'Little England' Shell After Brussels Attacks

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Right-wing protesters break-up a vigil for the victims of the Brussels attacks in front of the old stock exchange in the Belgian capital, March 27. 2016. Reuters/Yves Herman

Once again, terrorist attacks in Europe and the fear that more may come, have raised questions in the West about the strength of our defences. But nothing has changed. We continue to need as before, an adequate counter-terrorist capability, a resilient social response and a confident political leadership that reaffirms our values and keeps the threat in perspective. A surprising outbreak of Trumpism in the United Kingdom, encouraged by the debate on Brexit, has done nothing to help our security. It is of more value to the terrorists than to those who oppose them.

The argument that somehow the U.K. would be better able to protect itself from terrorism if outside the European Union appears to draw on two assumptions: that EU membership makes British borders less secure, and that it prevents a necessarily robust approach to the arrest, detention and interrogation of suspects. The argument on borders holds little water; U.K. border controls are if anything, stronger than they would be if it left the Union. There is no requirement for the U.K. to join the Schengen Area, and the country benefits from having border controls in EU partner countries, such as France and Belgium, in addition to those at all ports of entry in the U.K.

In any case, tighter border controls would not make a difference unless the authorities already knew which returning British citizens or foreign visitors posed a security threat. This would seem to argue for closer cooperation with our partners rather than a retreat into a Little England shell. European partners still lack much data on the nature of the terrorist threat, as do the British services, but the French in particular are a vital ally. The recent wave of attacks, in particular those associated with the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), has seen a far higher percentage of Francophone plotters than of Anglophone ones.

More importantly, some commentators have argued that British membership of the EU somehow provides suspects with too many rights and denies law enforcement and security agencies in the U.K. the necessary tools to do their job. Britain's obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights have come under fire in this respect. Leaving aside that the Convention is a creation of the Council of Europe, not of the EU, and that the U.K., both by example and through its negotiators, played a major role in its drafting, a reduction in individual rights is surely the worst response to terrorism.

One stated aim of ISIS is to erode the "grey zone," which it defines as the area between its supporters and its opponents. The group accepts no questioning of its methods or objectives; it claims infallibility in its understanding of Islam and its interpretation of sharia law; and it allows no appeals against its judgements. According to ISIS, the many millions of Muslims around the world who question Western policies and values have no choice but to support them—either fighting on its behalf or helping it be true to its motto of remaining and expanding.

To the contrary, the West accepts and even welcomes dissent. Freedom of expression and the rights of the individual before the law are fundamental to our society. They—like a united Europe—are testament to our social resilience and political evolution through the many years of strife and misrule that have occurred all too frequently in our collective history. These are achievements that we should be loath to discard, especially in the face of a threat that is exaggerated by its horror and unpredictability, but is hardly existential.

Building walls to divide nations, policing Muslim communities as if they were ghettos, allowing fast track extradition of terrorist suspects to another jurisdiction if they cannot be prosecuted for the same crime under national laws, are the insincere convention of election cycles, not the subject of serious debate at a time of great tension.

We need strong leadership to keep society level-headed and calm. It may not be popular in the media to say that everyone who needs to do so is working hard to prevent further attacks but that the public should nevertheless accept that further attacks could happen, but that is the essential message to convey. Reports that ISIS has switched tactics to attack Western capitals, particularly in Europe, as its fortunes decline in Syria and Iraq, and that it has despatched 400 operatives for this purpose, could be true. But so too could reports that it has done so because it sees an opportunity to exploit fissures in our countries and communities caused by divisive politics, over reaction driven by fear, and a tendency to double down on kinetic solutions and restrictive measures.

Killing senior members of ISIS and al-Qaeda will weaken the organisations and keep them in check, but it will not make them go away. This will only happen when the friends and relatives of ISIS recruits or their sympathisers are prepared to intervene, whether by dissuading them from violent action or by asking the state to help in doing so. After the attack is too late. This requires the communities from which ISIS supporters come to see themselves as well-served by their governments, equal participants in national politics and beneficiaries of the progress the West continues to make towards a tolerant, albeit imperfect society.

Richard Barrett OBE is the former global counter-terrorism director of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, and the former coordinator of the United Nations Al Qaeda-Taliban monitoring team. He now serves as senior vice-president of the New York-based security consultancy The Soufan Group.