Security expert Hristo Smolenov:
Terrorism has made European society sick
The extremists’ goal is to create fear that would keep people hostages
1 July, 2017
Close-up: Scholar and journalist Hristo Smolenov was born in 1954 in Plovdiv. He is an alumnus of the English Language High School in Sofia and the Lomonosov Moscow State University. He has worked at the Institute of Philosophy and then the Institute of Mathematics with the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. He earned his PhD degree in 1982. Smolenov received a scholarship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in 1990-1991. He is a visiting lecturer at the University of Montreal and the Catholic University of America. He has authored five books.
- Mr Smolenov, a main railway station in Brussels was recently evacuated after a man wearing an explosive belt triggered a small explosion. What was the goal of this terrorist attack?
- Goals should be analysed in a short-term, operative aspect and a longer-term aspect. This is why we will consider both the immediate target of such an attack and its intended consequences down the line. These incidents have grown too frequent. It is clear that the idea is to strike key and emblematic locations in the EU. Don’t western European officials, the political elite, realise that a true terrorist war is being waged against the very essence of the European civilisation, against the EU as a model of peaceful co-existence between representatives of different cultures? The radical Islam is trying to make it hard for its followers, people of the same faith and communities to integrate within a wider European civilisation framework. What is paradoxical is that the attack echoes in people’s minds. What happened in London is a sign that the terrorists are starting to achieve their nefarious goals - to breed an atmosphere of intolerance, not just of fear and resentment but of outright religiously-motivated hatred.
- Fortunately, the latest attack in Brussels took no casualties. Many observers have described it as “low-budget”. In what other ways does it stand out?
- Normally associated with cinema, “low-budget” is a far more frightening term when used in the context of terrorist attacks because it implies mass proliferation. This is the latest strategy employed by Islamic State and its masterminds who previously were behind the Al Qaeda network and who, following the assassination of Osama Bin Laden as a way to prevent him from creating an ideological counterbalance to the new Islamic State, turned this phenomenon into a quasi-state with its own budget and territory, until recently populated by over 10 million people. You can imagine how an army of terrorists is recruited among a population of 10 million, subjected to all kinds of harassment, blackmail, racketeering and violence.
We should not delude ourselves. The damages inflicted by what happened at the Brussels station are not just material and cannot even be assessed using the measure of human life. People’s confidence that they live in a well-organised society has been shaken. To me, the fact that the place where the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and other institutional pillars of this community of free and democratic nations are based is not safe is mindboggling and scandalous. There are things that gradually destabilise the public psyche, revealing that the end goal is not for one or another suicide attacker to blow themselves up near the booking offices at the railway station, nor it is to raise commotion and kill a few people. The goal is to create and spread fear, holding people hostage and making them gradually adapt to danger by sacrificing some of their society’s basic principles.
The situation is indeed complex, democracy is incapable of defending itself and many people start to really wonder if that is the same social system that used to guarantee them well-being. It turns out that these societies cannot ensure their own security because, aside from everything else, they create and spread their own fundamental enemies as part of the social reproduction pattern. It would seem that the western society is hard on its taxpayers, while putting in a position of privilege people who may eventually bring more suffering and terror. This should be considered in direct relation to the uncontrollable import of migrants and the failure of traditional justice system structures to act preemptively. The terrorist aggression always beats us to the punch. By the time investigators identify the perpetrators and instigators of an attack, ten more occur.
- Is the fact that the attacker was quickly neutralised a sign that the security agencies are better prepared and responding more efficiently?
- No. First, this shows that the Belgian special forces are among the best. Second, their response time indicates a level of coordination that is war-time like. But this does not mean that these agencies are overhauled or have adapted to the new threat. It is time that the European public and more specifically the decision-makers understand the simple truth we have been talking about for over 15 years - terrorism cannot be combated with the rigidly hierarchical systems utilised by the army and the law enforcement. The fight against terrorism requires a whole other type of prevention, involving a heavy use of cyber tools and computers, a systemic approach. Security agencies must abandon their state of comfort predicated on the fact that there are police structures in place and officers patrolling the streets, which are meant to reassure the concerned citizens. A system to counter terrorist actions on European level is needed. A system to counter radicalisation is needed.
- Do you believe that the Europeans live in constant panic due to the increased frequency of attacks? Has terror managed to make society ill?
- Yes, I believe that terror has made the European society ill. It has caused a hostage syndrome to rule the actions of high circles, including political ones. This hostage condition, viewed through the prism of the so-called Stockholm syndrome, leads to strange reactions of resignation towards those who kidnapped European freedom. Our society is practicing self-censorship. Just look at how hackneyed and unperceptive are the psychological conclusions offered after each attack. The media, which has obviously been instructed in the spirit of old formulas and suggestions, keep saying that we will not yield to the terrorists’ blackmail, we will not change our way of life. All the interviewees repeat the same inadequate mantra of “we are not afraid” ad nauseam. On the contrary, we are afraid and anyone who refuses to see it needs only to remember the public’s reaction on the streets of Paris when several Chinese fireworks accidentally went off. The same people who were marching against terrorism and insisted they were not afraid scattered in a panic to get away, trampling candles and flowers. I remember that scene vividly not because I condemn what is a normal reaction to a scare. But if this latent fear is not treated with special organisational and political measures, if it is not taken into account while forming a new approach to the psychological warfare that is being conducted right now, it can cause unforeseen consequences. In cybernetics there is this principle of unintended consequences and it suggests that we do not know what society’s suppressed, untreated fear of what is happening might produce. The fact that people do not give voice to their fears is more indicative of their distrust of the media, which make light of the terrorism topic by popularising upbeat declarations that clash with the prevailing sentiment among European citizens. On the other hand, they try to force-feed us the notion that good always wins. Well, good cannot win by being meek and uncritical in the face of danger and evil. Good must realise its responsibility to the future and the way to do this is through galvanising society, building a public network to counter the terrorist threat using vigilance.
- Should Europe brace for a hot summer of attacks and has Islamic State gone on the offensive?
- Islamic State is a true paradox. Its very existence is proof that there are powers in this world that sponsor terrorism and provide terrorist elites with protection as they view them as business partners in lucrative shady deals. Naturally, in such a geopolitical situation there will inevitably be people who will want to take maximum advantage of the huge investment called Islamic State. It should be pretty obvious whose investment it is. It is no coincidence that even the current US President Donald Trump has accused Hillary Clinton and her team of creating Islamic State. How after so many big revelations, not to mention given that everyone understands what is happening in the Middle East and its festering effect on the global fiber, the measures and steps taken against Islamic State continue to be so tentative is beyond me. Your question about Islamic State being on the offensive is reasonable. But I think that Islamic State is rather regrouping and recalibrating its strategy. It has changed tack. The group understands that it might not be able to keep its control of the Islamic State territory in Iraq and so it is now focused on the so-called soft targets. It is shifting towards a form of terrorism that cannot be easily located due to the amateur solo approach of the vast majority of Islamic State followers and the problems that the European democracy brings onto itself by blindly following the cliches about what is happening. Cliches are a very tricky thing. When a particular truth is past its expiration date, as set by the social and political context and the evolution of society, it sours and turns into poison. If society continues to consume it, it is bound to not only fall sick but start agonising. At this point, the expected hot summer may turn into a psychological agony.
I am sorry to sound like such a doomsayer, talking about things that will materialise in ten years, but the truth is that Europe should rethink its own mode of operation. We should create a situation in which a completely different European system of combating radicalisation will emerge. The voices we need to hear are of people with responsible, social, military and political thinking because the war on terrorism has become an all-out war of terror against the European civilisation. We are hostages and it is up to us to free and heal ourselves or agonise in anticipation of something similar to the terrorist series of incidents happening.
It is high time that Europe mobilises its brightest minds, employs its entire strategic and special tactical arsenal, its capacity of people who can collaborate in fighting off something that in just a year will have reshaped the European civilisation beyond recognition. I would like to say that there is a great deal of sense in what you are doing - publishing analyses and not just comments of what is happening. Analysing these events and the conclusions to be drawn from them are part of prevention efforts against terror. Society needs psychological prevention and the best form is truth and fostering understanding of the underlying processes. We need to be critical and not gobble up fake news or superficial comments about tragedies. We can save ourselves and such analyses help this cause. Instead of being accomplices to an unintentional PR of Europe’s terrorism-riddled life of late, we should cultivate a critical way of thinking. Thus, we will make people think and thinking is salvation.
The interview was originally published by Focus Information Agency.