Too bad for the victims: Europe still fails to protect public from terror

Too bad for the victims: Europe still fails to protect public from terror
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The attack in Liege, Belgium on Tuesday is being treated as an act of terrorism and rightly so. It began when the suspect, now identified as Belgian Benjamin Herman, assaulted two female police officers from behind, stabbing them multiple times and, after seizing their weapons, killing them both in cold blood. Such is terrorist bravery.

He went on to shoot and kill a bystander, a student about to complete his preparation to become a teacher, before fleeing into a school where he took hostages. In the ensuing exchange of fire, he wounded several police officers, one critically, before meeting his death.

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According to Belgian authorities, Herman shouted out “Allahu akbar” during his spree, identifying his violence as a form of Islamist terrorism. 

 

Herman’s prior criminal record included robbery, violent assault and drug trafficking. He was serving a long prison sentence but, as strange as it may sound, he had been granted a two-day release as part of a program to facilitate his coming re-entry into society.

He had been granted that release even though security forces knew that Herman had been in contact with extremist elements in prison. A prisoner release program may well serve a legitimate purpose in some cases of genuine rehabilitation, but in retrospect it was foolhardy to extend that privilege to a hardened criminal and violent offender with radical ties. 

Herman’s case is reminiscent of the tragic events in Berlin on Dec. 20, 2016, when Anis Amri drove a stolen truck into a Christmas market, killing 12 and wounding dozens.

Both assailants intentionally selected targets that symbolize the world they oppose: police officers as representatives of the Belgian state and the German holiday market as a sign of Christianity.

In addition, both attackers had previously attracted the attention of security forces due to their radical ties. Both were known to pose potential danger, but no one prevented them from carrying out their crimes.

When it became known that German security forces had already targeted Amri but had not apprehended him, public outrage followed, contributing to the changing political mood in Germany. A similar discussion is emerging now in Belgium: How could Herman have been let free, given the threat he clearly posed? 

The events in Liege and Berlin both show European security forces aware of dangers but unwilling to act to protect the public sufficiently. The former vice prime minister of Belgium, Louis Michel, has characterized the state as “impotent” and lacking in the legal means to anticipate these events.

In the balancing act between the rights of criminals and public safety, Europe still tilts toward the former. Too bad for the victims.

European security forces sometimes face the criticism that they are inefficient and fail to share information across national borders, allowing terrorists to move freely and evade capture. The need for Europe-wide policing of violent extremists is evident.

In Liege however, as in Berlin, the matter is different. The authorities had the information but callously chose not to act on it. There will not be safety in Europe’s streets until terrorism prevention becomes a priority for the political class, and that will only happen as public anger grows stronger. Terrorism in the streets puts populists in power.

Russell A. Berman is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a co-chair of the Working Group on Islamism and the International Order. He is the author of, "Freedom or Terror: Europe Faces Jihad," (2010).