Small Wars Journal

Time to Bring Counterinsurgency to Molenbeek

Thu, 04/21/2016 - 8:15am

Time to Bring Counterinsurgency to Molenbeek

Gary Anderson

They probably won’t take it, but the best advice anyone could give the Belgians is to treat what is happening in the Molenbeek district of Brussels as an early stage urban insurgency and convince them that they need to take a counterinsurgency approach. The nascent radical Islamic insurgency in Molenbeek is not the kind of urban threat that we saw in Iraqi cities like Baghdad and Fallujah. Those were full scale insurgences that had gotten into the second and third phases, which require military intervention. What we see in Belgium and Paris are first stage insurgent efforts that can still be handled by police and good intelligence efforts rather than resorting to a military option. That is the good news. The bad news is that the Belgians (and probably the French and Germans) likely lack the political will to take the actions necessary to nip this nascent insurgency in the bud.

Molenbeek’s heavily Moroccan North African population is largely unassimilated and ghettoized. Unemployment is high resulting in the criminalization of the young and a police presence that is a drive-by exercise at best. This is the perfect primordial soup for an urban insurgent movement. Insert Islamic State radicals from Syria and Iraq who have the training and organizational skill learned in a foreign jihad, and then mix in a community of Muslim religious leaders who have refused to learn the official languages of Belgium (French and Flemish), and you have the perfect breeding ground for an urban insurgency.

Fortunately, urban insurgencies are the easiest to control, particularly in an early stage as this one is. It is still primarily a law enforcement/intelligence problem. The number of active terrorist cells is dangerous, but not large enough to put up an effective determined resistance to government efforts to exterminate them. We may be talking gun battles with police, but not sustained urban combat. However, the government involved has to have the will and the resources to aggressively attack the problem at its roots. Merely finding terrorist cells and breaking them up is not enough. The root causes have to be at least addressed even if the government does not have the resources to totally eliminate them.

The situation in Molenbeek is more similar to the Malaysian Emergency of the 1950s and sixties than in is to Iraq or Afghanistan. This insurgency is among an easily recognized minority population; in the case of Malaysia in was ethnic Chinese, and in this case it is ethnic Moroccans. The British, and later the newly independent Malay government caught the insurgency early. Although there was some early British military involvement, the emergency was primarily dealt with by police. The main difference between the two is that there were legal mechanisms in place to wage the counterinsurgency. Although it has toughened its laws in the wake of the recent bombings, liberal Belgium is still not psychologically ready to adopt emergency laws to deal with seriousness of the situation. Sadly, it may take another horrific incident to wake them up.

Successful counterinsurgencies have three stages: clear, hold, and build. The clear stage is doable in Molenbeek if good police work is applied. Molenbeek has been described as a “no go zone” for police - as are many immigrant neighborhoods in Europe. Sen. Ted Cruz is wrong about needing more police in American Muslim communities as they are more assimilated than in Europe, but he would be correct if he prescribed such an approach in some Belgian, French, and German urban areas.  Molenbeek needs more cops. There are not enough Belgian-Moroccan ethnic police officers in Brussels and a priority should be made of recruiting and training more. That will not happen immediately, but Brussels reportedly has 135 vacant police openings. Filling those vacancies with North African origin recruits would be ideal. Until that can happen, Molenbeek should be flooded with the cops they have and trained in community policing. Each five block area should have a small police garrison that also has a collocated public works sub -station where citizens can come and seek solutions to neighborhood problems such as trash pick-up as well as complaints regarding water, sewage and other issues common in urban areas.

If community policing and a more a more visible benign expression of government interest in their neighborhood is the carrot, the stick would be random screening and biometric sampling at the district’s boundaries. Every Belgian citizen known to have traveled to the Middle East should be on a list of persons to be biometrically screened whenever they are located. Paid informers should be placed at each of Molenbeek’s 22 mosques where 90 percent of the imams cannot speak either of Belgium’s official languages. Placing constant heat on the district’s terrorist cells will eventually force them to move to areas where the support infrastructure is less robust - making them more prone to being rolled up by the cops.  I participated in such operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they work. But success will not be permanent unless the national government seriously addresses the root causes long term. The British and Malaysians did that the Iraqi and Afghan governments did not.

The hold stage in a nascent insurgency is designed keep the area toxic for the infiltration or formation of new cells. The second stage should start at the point where enough local residents who have been trained as police can begin replacing French-Flemish speakers in patrolling the streets.

In reality the third “build” phase can be near-simultaneous with the hold phase in a nascent insurgency. This phase begins at the point where the government decides to invest in solutions to the root causes of the problems that have caused Molenbeek to become a Muslim ghetto. It should consist of public works programs throughout the city that will give employment to young people who would otherwise resort to criminal behavior due to unemployment. Police sponsored sports leagues are a way to try to convince pre-working age youth that the government and police can be positive forces in their lives. A requirement for at least one imam in each mosque to be able to speak one of the official languages accompanied by paid tutoring in the languages would provide a way to create a dialogue between the government and the 22 centers of Islamic life in the district.

Contrary to popular opinion that counterinsurgency is about “winning hearts and minds” of the population, COIN is really about making the population toxic to the terrorist cell before they can evolve into full blown insurgent organizations. That does not mean that the population needs to be pro-government; although that is the long-term goal. It does mean that people see it to be not in their interest to harbor or support the Islamist radicals.

Unfortunately, the Belgians and the rest of the EU countries with nascent Islamic insurgencies will likely not take the counterinsurgency route - at least for the time being; they are even more sensitive to profiling than Americans, and they are notoriously resistant to the kind of intelligence sharing and strong policing required for a counterinsurgent campaign to succeed. For example, until recently, the guards at Belgium’s two nuclear plants were unarmed as dictated by national law. The reality is that by refusing to encourage their Muslim populations to assimilate, the Belgians and some their European neighbors have inadvertently done the worst kind of profiling. Their Muslim citizens have profiled themselves into their ghettos.  Belgians, both Muslim and non-Muslim, need to understand that a successful counterinsurgency campaign would make Molenbeek a better place to live.

Counterinsurgency has gotten a bad rap in this country lately because the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan did not buy into the philosophy at the national level and the EU countries appear to be also refusing to address root causes at the national level as well; only then will success at the local level be possible. Good counterinsurgency is like good politics in that it works best locally. Insurgencies in places like Molenbeek and others are very solvable problems. But like addicts, the government of Belgium needs to admit that it has a problem.

About the Author(s)

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps Colonel who has been a civilian advisor in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is an adjunct professor at the George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.



Thu, 04/21/2016 - 9:29am


Well written article with valid points and assessments.

"Contrary to popular opinion that counterinsurgency is about “winning hearts and minds” of the population, COIN is really about making the population toxic to the terrorist cell before they can evolve into full blown insurgent organizations. That does not mean that the population needs to be pro-government; although that is the long-term goal. It does mean that people see it to be not in their interest to harbor or support the Islamist radicals."

I think the above excerpt is accurate and applies to a variety of situations and conflicts. This to some extent is reflective of the Russo-Ukraine War and separatist support by the population in the Donbass. Another recently published SWJ article entitled "Complex IPB" assesses "fitness landscape" as a socio-cultural and political ecosystem .

Additional emphasis is placed on individual and collective capabilities or fitness functions such as profession, education, ethnic group, need for money or family connections. A person survives or thrives based on their fitness function and its ability to extract resources from the fitness landscape.

Some of your initiatives would impact and hopefully improve the fitness function and landscape of target populations.

Finally, this point is also highly accurate: "Counterinsurgency has gotten a bad rap in this country" which also translates to our national and unfortunately multinational training.