Exposed, Vital, Iconic

A Criminological Analysis of the Brussels Attacks

/ by Edgar Tijhuis

The Millenial Iconoclast Museum of Art (NIMA) in Molenbeek would have had its opening today (March 24). The museum is located along the canal of the same neighborhood where Salah Abdeslam grew up, and was hiding for months, before his arrest last week. The location for the new museum was not chosen without reason. According to a report on (News from Brussels), MIMA wanted to take advantage of the rising popularity of this part of Molenbeek, which will get a new park soon and already saw a new hotel open in 2013. Winne Jacobs, an official from MIMA, was quoted as saying that the site of the museum is ideal, and she drew a comparison with Berlin, where former industrial sites are strongly attracting young people.

The contrast with reports about Molenbeek before and after the attacks, and the arrest of Abdeslam last week, could hardly be more striking. Many reports focus on Molenbeek as a run-down neighborhood, a breeding ground for terrorists, and sanctuary for the perpetrators of the Paris attacks. This article examines both the incidental positive, as well as the standard negative perspective on this neighborhood, as a prism to explore criminological theories trying to explain terrorism, as well as suggest policies to counter this type of crime.


New Studies - Old Problems

Since 9/11, terrorism has not only become a main subject for politicians, law enforcement and the general public, but also for criminologists. Publications and research have sharply risen to catch up with other subfields of criminology. At the same time, the framing of terrorism has changed significantly. Whereas terrorism, both before 9/11 and since, has come in all kind of forms and from all kinds of groups, it increasingly, both in the public and academic spheres, has been equated with Islamic terrorism.

According to a study by Europol, however, terrorism is still a rather diverse phenomenon, with religiously-motivated attacks making up just a fraction of the total. Over 2014, Europol counted 199 attacks in Europe, with only 2 that were religiously motivated, while 13 were performed by left-wing groups, 67 by separatists and 116 unspecified. In the long run, the diversity is the same but the number of victims varies widely. In the two years following the US invasion of Iraq, as well as in the last two years, Islamic terrorists have been responsible for the majority of victims.

The US shows the same diversity, with the large majority of attacks in the last decades performed by anti-abortion radicals, white supremacists, anti-government and right-wing radicals and Puerto Rican nationalists.


Criminological Theories

In a recent publication by Gary La Free and Laura Dugan, two criminologists from the University of Maryland consider how criminology has contributed to the study of terrorism.

La Free and Dugan discuss an earlier study by Dugan and Chenowith (2012), focusing on rational choice theory, one of the most popular perspectives in criminology. They point out that rational choice approaches typically suggest that states raise the costs of terrorism through punishment, thereby reducing the overall expected utility of terrorism. At the same time, they argue that states should consider raising the expected utility of abstaining from terrorism through rewards. The study analyzes both the effects of repressive, as well as conciliatory actions on terrorist behavior in Israel, from 1987 to 2004. The results show that repressive actions had either no effect or increased terror, while conciliatory actions were generally related to decreases in terror, depending on the tactical period.

Linked to rational choice are situational theories of crime. La Free and Dugan discuss the work of Clarke and Newman (2006). They focus on what makes targets attractive and what types of weapons and tools are most appropriate for specific attacks. They argue that terrorists will be drawn to targets that are more exposed, more vital and more iconic. Furthermore, like ordinary offenders, terrorists will be attracted to targets that are within easy reach of their home base. The latter observation points in the direction of geographical or psychological offender profiling. Jasper van der Kemp, one of the leading criminologists in this field, sees some tentative opportunities here. “Predictive profiling will probably be of limited use. It would be worthwhile, however, to analyze whether profiling potential targets, and their relationship with frequently visited locations of potential terrorists, would be useful for law enforcement.”

A last important contribution by criminologists is Agnew’s (2010, 2016) theory of terrorism, based on general strain theory. This theory argues that collective strain increases the likelihood of terrorism, as it increases negative emotions, reduces social and self-control, fosters the social learning of terrorism, etc.


Belgian Realities

It’s interesting to apply the findings of criminological studies to real life, in Belgium and elsewhere. First of all, the aforementioned insights from situational theories seem to fit completely with the Brussels attacks. The airport and subway had all attributes of the aforementioned targets: exposed, vital and iconic.

Furthermore, findings on rational choice seems to suggest that trying to influence terrorists through harsh penalties is a waste of time. Something which appears to be obvious anyway, when dealing with suicide bombers and others, but is nevertheless relevant when the recent history of Belgium is considered. However “target hardening,” for example at airports and other crucial locations, is the least the government could and should do.

In an article with the striking title “The Guantánamo-ization of Belgium,” Luk Vervaet describes how the Belgian state drifted away from its liberal base. Both under the influence of the Marc Dutroux scandal, as well as fierce US pressure, a U-turn towards more deterrent policies was made, according to Vervaet. A turning point here was 2003, when the US forced Belgium to get rid of its law of universal jurisdiction (or genocide law).

The positive side of the rational choice theories, focusing on conciliatory actions, seems a useful addition to a discourse that is primarily based on law enforcement and its ever-increasing powers. Without arguing against these powers, as far as they are aimed at tracking down real or potential terrorists, it underscores the importance of additional policies. Policies that would target the social disintegration of neighborhoods like Molenbeek, or the banlieues in France. Furthermore, effective policy arguably should preclude polarization as much as possible. It is often practiced and polarization can lead to what criminologists call secondary deviance. Secondary deviance is the internalization of a deviant identity, on the basis of being labelled as belonging to a criminal group, instead of on the basis of actually committing crimes. As soon as this identity is formed, actual crimes may be committed much faster. It is interesting to note here that whereas President Hollande’s response after the attacks in Paris, “La France est en guerre,” seemed to lean towards polarization, Prime Minister Michel of Belgium subtly spoke about “those who had chosen to become the barbaric enemy of freedom, democracy and fundamental values.”

Edgar Tijhuis

studied Political Science, Law and American Studies at the University of Amsterdam. He received his Phd from Leiden University. His dissertation was published by Wolf Legal Publishers and is standard reading on transnational crime and art crime. Edgar Tijhuis is a visiting scholar at the Institute of Criminology in Ljubljana and regularly publishes in a range of journals.