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Exposed, Vital, Iconic, A Criminological Analyses of the Brussels Attacks

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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
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
Edgar Tijhuis
studied Political Science, Law and American Studies at the University of Amsterdam. He received his Phd
from Leiden University with a study of the interfaces between transnational crime and legal actors, specifically
focussing on the illicit art trade. His dissertation was published by Wolf Legal Publishers and is standard
reading for anyone interested in the field of art and crime. Edgar Tijhuis regularly publishes about related
subjects as well as more popular topics in a range of journals.
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