The Brussels syndrome


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There needs to be an international consensus on zero tolerance for all terrorism, as advocated by India and several other countries writes WPS Sidhu.

“What we had feared has come to pass,” said Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel on 22 March.

Like the Stockholm syndrome—a phenomenon in which hostages express sympathy and sometimes positive feelings towards their captors—the words of the beleaguered PM following the dastardly attacks in Brussels last week reflect a new phenomenon: one which is manifest in the defeatist attitude of authorities to the inevitability of such occurrences at the hands of a few poorly equipped but motivated individuals. An indication of this is the closure of the airport for an entire week following the bombings.

The Brussels attacks are particularly worrying because some reports suggest that the group was also tracking a scientist working for Belgium’s Nuclear Research Centre and might have been planning to acquire nuclear material to make a ‘dirty bomb’, which though using conventional explosives, would spread deadly radiological material in a blast. Additionally, reports also allege that the group might have been planning an attack on one of Belgium’s seven nuclear power plants.

There is an even graver potential threat. Belgium is one of several European countries where the US stores some of its 200-odd tactical nuclear weapons (the B61 tactical gravity bombs) and their security is not ironclad. In 2010, Belgian peace activists infiltrated the Kleine-Brogel Air Base, where some B61s are reportedly kept, on several occasions and in one instance were undetected for 90 minutes. Were jihadist groups to breach the security and steal nuclear weapons, the propaganda impact (even if they did not detonate the weapon) would be devastating.

The Brussels syndrome is driven by three factors: first, the inability to assimilate minorities holed up in urban ghettos and their growing alienation from the mainstream population and polity through retrograde official steps (such as banning the wearing of religious symbols). This invariably triggers some individuals to seek extremely destructive ways to express their grievance, evident in the fact that Belgium provides one of the highest per capita recruits to the Islamic State.

Second, as a corollary to the first dynamic, the official ineptitude—prompted by domestic political divisions—to effectively track, infiltrate or prevent extremist groups from carrying out their operations. Several reports have suggested that Belgian authorities failed on many occasions to nip this particular ‘super-cell’ in the bud, despite information from other countries.

Third, the inability of western authorities to recognize and address the transnational and indeed global nature of such attacks, which are often rehearsed and perfected in other cities, is also a worrying aspect. For instance, the Brussels attacks are reminiscent of similar incidents at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, the several recent bombings in Ankara and Istanbul as well as Bangladesh, Lebanon and Yemen. Yet, Brussels did not acknowledge this dastardly pattern; it was visiting US secretary of state John Kerry who made these obvious linkages.

The Brussels syndrome need not be a fait accompli. Indeed, several steps are and can be taken to address it. First, the Nuclear Security Summit that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will attend in Washington DC this week (after stopping over in Brussels for the long overdue India-European Union summit) along with 50 other leaders is aimed at securing civilian nuclear material. Given the events in Brussels, there might be a case to reduce nuclear dangers by removing tactical nuclear weapons stored in vulnerable countries in Europe.

In addition, there needs to be an international consensus on zero tolerance for all terrorism, as advocated by India and several other countries. While a comprehensive convention on terrorism would help to achieve that objective, it is caught up in unending deliberations at the UN General Assembly.

Finally, in the long term, countries will have to buttress their multicultural and pluralistic traditions to ensure the protection and inclusion of persecuted minorities. Otherwise, the Brussels syndrome will become a debilitating reality.

This article first appeared in Mint on 28th March 2016. Like other products of the Brookings Institution India Center, this report is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues. The views are those of the author.