For three years, Western governments have viewed Syria mostly as a problem from hell. They lamented Syria’s descent into the abyss of civil war and mass atrocities. They expressed hope for a political solution. They imposed sanctions on Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and his close associates and relatives. They provided some aid for the humanitarian crisis. And they offered some rhetorical support and material help — though by no means decisive — to moderate elements of Syria’s beleaguered opposition. But their bottom line was: this is someone else’s problem and that somehow, what happens in Syria, lamentable as it may be, stays in Syria.
That changed on Saturday May 24, the day before most European countries went to the polls to elect a new European Parliament, when, according to French police who arrested him a few days later, Mehdi Nemmouche, a young French Muslim from Marseille with a criminal past, walked into the Jewish Museum in Brussels, took out a Kalashnikov, and calmly proceeded to murder four people who were inside the museum at the time, before disappearing into thin air. He is now fighting extradition to Belgium and denies all charges.
Nemmouche is a graduate of the Syrian jihad. Like thousands of other young Muslims from all over the world, he has travelled to Syria to fight alongside al-Qaeda and other jihadi groups against Assad, before returning home. Unlike his Afghan jihadi predecessors a generation before — most of whom hailed from the Arab world and other Islamic countries — Nemmouche is a citizen of the European Union. There are thousands of others like him who, having grown up in the West as children and grandchildren of Muslim immigrants, have been radicalised in the West, travelled to Syria to join the jihad, learned to fight, and are now back, more extreme than before their departure, and more skilful at turning their ideas into deeds.
Like Mohamed Merah, who two years ago stormed a Jewish school in Toulouse and slaughtered three children and a teacher, Nemmouche combines a vicious hatred for Jews with the skills to kill them. While the latter is not exclusively the product of his time in Syria, the military aloofness he displayed in methodically murdering his victims is a result of his time in battle. It is a serious escalation in the quality and level of threat of homegrown Islamic terrorism in Europe and, potentially, elsewhere in Western societies.
As it happens, Nemmouche chose to go after a Jewish target, which will give many an excuse to continue to ignore the Syrian problem or the Islamic radicals it is sending back into Western societies. Social media responses to the outrage included much raw hatred aimed to downplay, dismiss or even justify Nemmouche’s actions under the tired pretext of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Thus, efforts by supporters of the Palestinian cause to excuse the killing of Jews again offered strong evidence that Israel’s robust and frequent equation of anti-Zionism to anti-Semitism is spot-on.
They also proved another more sinister point. While Nemmouche’s hatred for the Jews may have emerged in extreme circles, extremism rarely gets away with murder unless the more moderate environment which it aims to influence is not at least somewhat receptive to its ideology. And when it comes to anti-Semitism, Western Europe remains a friendly place. Belgium, in particular, has witnessed a steady stream of such a poisonous diet of Jew-hatred in recent years. Jewish institutions feel more like fortresses than houses of study and prayer. They are heavily patrolled and barricaded. Jewish students have been routinely attacked. All the while, politicians have downplayed and trivialised vicious anti-Jewish rhetoric — often disguised as Palestinian solidarity — and in some instances even actively supported it.
Predictably, within days, one of political Islam’s leading ideologues in Europe — the Geneva-born Tariq Ramadan — was peddling the unsubstantiated notion that the Israeli couple who succumbed to Nemmouche’s bullets had been killed intentionally in a targeted assassination. Ramadan’s dismissal of terrorist allegations was not just brazen. It was also based on the thinnest of evidence — a speculative article by Ha’aretz journalist Amir Oren. But it hit the mark: so many were keen to believe in the wildest conspiracy theories because they help whitewash the threat of militant Islam in our midst.
It is not the first time this has happened: since Islamists hit Madrid’s Atocha railway station in March 2004, killing 191 people, their mounting outrages in Europe have been accompanied by an orchestrated public campaign of sympathisers whose goal is to divert attention from the real problem and, in the process, help their agenda.
The results have been predictable. Jews feel understandably vulnerable, with an increase in numbers leaving for safer shores — Israel or North America being the primary destinations — and even more people exploring the option or encouraging the younger generations to leave.
That may happen in time, especially if European societies continue to downplay the Islamist threat or pretend, in typical Marxist fashion, that it is the byproduct of legitimate political grievances and relative economic deprivation. But a Jewish exodus will be a rude awakening to those Europeans who wish to ignore the problem. The returning jihadis hate Western society no less — and once the Jews are gone, there will be plenty of other infidels to go after.
That is why, among other things, the Brussels Jewish Museum terror attack should not just alert Europeans to the threat of homegrown radicalism. It should also be a wake-up call for the need to alter the West’s Syria policy. Inaction has allowed Syria to become the breeding ground of thousands of potential Nemmouches whose murderous rage will not stop at Jews. It is time to put an end to that too.