The Maalbeek/Maelbeek metro station in Brussels. Photo by (EvtS) via Wikimedia Commons.
Terrorism is a lot like residential mold: Given the right environment, it establishes colonies out of sight, spreading spores everywhere until one day it bursts into view and you realize you have a big problem that will be hard to clean up.
Mold likes to grow in the dark spaces behind your walls. With just a bit of moisture and the organic materials in your drywall, it can rot your dwelling from the inside out.
Terror likes empty, ungoverned, politically “dark” spaces too. It has sprouted in many corners in the past two decades: Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and the so-called tribal regions of Pakistan, to name a few. Afghanistan under the Taliban was a bit different; there, the government actually harbored the al-Qaida infection. But the granddaddy of all of these mold colonies is the self-proclaimed Islamic State group, the large sweep of territory in Syria and Iraq where structured evil, masquerading under a guise of religion but really no more than terrestrial piracy, has established itself and spread its seed worldwide.
We saw the results again yesterday in Brussels, with attacks that killed dozens of people at the airport and in the subway. Investigators had already been appalled to discover, in connection with the arrest last week of Paris terror fugitive Salah Abdeslam, how widespread and entrenched the European terror network has become in the Belgian capital. Agents trained by Daesh (as the Islamic State group is known throughout its home territory) accompanied the wave of Syrian and Iraqi refugees into Europe. There, they recruited and assisted local accomplices, and took advantage of the web of friends and relatives those accomplices provided to plot a series of attacks. After numerous initial failures, they have now succeeded twice in the span of four months, in two separate cities. And they have inspired deadly, indigenous “lone wolf” attacks by local residents in places as far-flung as Texas, San Bernardino, Paris (just remember Charlie Hebdo) and Chattanooga.
Myopic American policy, whose hallmark has been hollow words and empty gestures, helped create the environment in which Daesh has established itself. So has European cowardice, in the form of ransom payments and political ambivalence about the means and necessity of removing Syrian President Bashar Assad as a prerequisite to providing the safety that would have kept the refugees from flooding Europe.
To remedy a mold problem, you have to eradicate the source colony and stop the spread of the spores. To eradicate terrorism, we need to eliminate the ungoverned spaces in which it grows and control the flow of people from those regions into our living spaces. Borders matter, and border controls – even fences and walls – can help, as Europeans are belatedly discovering. A lot of human misery, as well as terror risk, can be avoided by keeping refugees from becoming refugees in the first place.
You can fix a mold problem fairly easily if you act fast. If you wait, it gets much harder – and if you wait too long, you end up with a home that is no longer worth living in.