Skip to content

Racism and the Fight Against Terrorism

In August 2017, Spain became the latest European target of terrorism when a Moroccan-born man struck pedestrians with a van in Barcelona, killing 14 people and injuring dozens of others. Unlike many of the country’s European neighbors, such as France, in the recent past Spain appeared safe from terrorist attacks. Spain has not had a significant attack since 2004, when al-Qaida targeted commuter trains in Madrid, killing 192 people.  France, on the other hand, has been under a state of emergency since the Paris attacks in November 2015, where 130 died when suicide bombers and gunmen carried out coordinated attacks on numerous soft targets around the city, including restaurants, a concert hall and a stadium.  France has also suffered from many other significant terrorist attacks in the recent past, such as the shooting at the offices satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, a vehicle attack on the seaside boulevard of Nice on Bastille Day in 2016, and the Champs Elysses vehicle attack in April 2017, among others.

Image courtesy of the U.S. Department of State, © 2016.

While these two countries have different experiences with domestic terrorism, many of their struggles, including domestic xenophobia, racial profiling, and the creation of robust but fair security practices, are very similar. Staunch security practices may help foil terrorist plots and ensure security in the short-term, but alienating minorities and immigrants will not lead to lasting security and peace.  Terrorism affects and hurts everyone – native Europeans and recent immigrants alike. Anti-terrorism strategies must include supporting, integrating and working with immigrant communities on the joint-effort of preventing extremist attacks.

Spain has long been a tantalizing target for terrorists, since between the 8th and 15th centuries much of the Iberian Peninsula was in Muslim control. “When terrorist groups look at Europe, they see Spain as a country that used to be part of the global caliphate, and it was lost,” said Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank. France also has been a constant target for extremists, largely due to France’s staunch secularism, violent colonial history in North Africa, and struggles integrating its North African immigrant communities.

European countries have found that its war with terrorism is no longer in some distant land, but is now being waged at home. In the past, terrorist recruiters attempted to lure new jihadists to Syrian cities, where they received a weekly salary from the Islamic State, lodging, food, arms, tech gear and clothes. But, according to reporting by a Spanish network, Antena 3 TV, two 20-something-year-old men made unexpected statements in a documentary about traveling to Syria for jihad: “Why would we want to go to Syria? I wage jihad in Ceuta. We have Syria here.” The present generation of aspiring terrorists in Spain is even more challenging for authorities to find in time, as they are Spanish, the children of Muslim immigrants, who look and act like Westerners. They are well-versed in the extremist doctrines of “takfir wal hijra,” which allows them to violate Islamic rules, such as prohibitions on drinking alcohol or eating pork, if it is required to attain the higher goal of destroying the West.  France’s extremists are also often French citizens, second or third generation immigrants, who choose to radicalize in opposition to France’s staunch secular policies, lack of economic opportunities and racial prejudices experienced in France. Extreme religious practices are often an avenue for immigrant youth to create identity and sense of belonging, since they believe Europe will never accept them.

Domestic xenophobia and racial profiling are struggles for both Spain and France. A 2001 Constitutional Court ruling highlighted Spain’s racially-centered struggles which supported the police practice of relying on specific physical or racial characteristics as “reasonable indicators of the non-national origin of the person who possesses them.” The Court reasoned that racial criteria are “merely indicative of the greater probability that the interested party was not Spanish.”  In effect, Spain’s highest court sanctioned the use of racial profiling. While this ruling was not tied directly to a counterterrorism threat, it shows the foundational mindset of policing authorities in the country – anyone who is not Caucasian is probably not Spanish and potentially a threat.

The leading cause of France’s counterterrorism shortcomings and minority discrimination is France’s state of emergency, which often allows counterterrorism officials and police to disproportionately target Muslim immigrants and includes the right to set curfews, forbid mass gatherings, establish secure zones where people can be monitored and close public spaces. France has been a state of emergency since 2015. Under France’s President Emmanuel Macron, France is set to lift the state of emergency in the fall of 2017, though Macron also plans to endorse new anti-terrorism legislature codifying several unusual policing controls from the state of emergency. Under the proposed legislation warrant-less property searches and house arrests could become normal policing practices. According to reporting by France24, the proposed bill would also allow banning protest marches, shutting down places of worship suspected of sharing extremist views, and forcing people under house arrest to give police access to their electronic devices. Shockingly, police could implement these powers without oversight of a judge. With this new legislation, France is essentially planning to internalize the state of emergency, which will not set the stage for successful cooperation between minority communities and French authorities.

France also struggles with domestic xenophobia. It’s often difficult for North African immigrants to obtain jobs due to their foreign sounding names. North African immigrants also often clash with the concept of – “laicite – which is the French term for separation of church and state. France regards religion as a completely private matter, and this norm can be challenging for Muslim immigrants in France who want to openly practice and express their faith. Often the ones struggling the most are second and third generation immigrants, who do not completely identify as European or Arab. Additionally, many of France’s immigrant communities reside in ghettos outside Paris, in an area called “Department 93,” where isolation is not only emotional but also physical. The French are so attached to the idea of equality that they don’t even allow collection of census data on ethnic minorities, even to help fight discrimination. France’s real immigration struggle lies in social integration and identity expression of its immigrants.

Spain may not have the ghettos and physical separation as its French counterpart, but xenophobia and racism are still running rampant there. Spain’s hate crimes increased more than three-fold between 2012 and 2016 and anti-Muslim hate crime increased tenfold in 2015.  According to Mounir Benjelloun, the president of the Spanish Federation of Islamic Religious Entities, a total of 534 anti-Islam incidents, including online abuse, were recorded last year, up from 48 in 2014. While an increase in officers on the streets, the number of counterterrorism officials combing through social media accounts and employing staunch policies may help foil terrorist plots in the short-term, it will continue to be an uphill, losing battle.

Lasting security is impossible if Spain and France continue to alienate their Muslim immigrant population and treat minorities as potential threats. This creates chilling effects between Muslim immigrant communities and authorities and can also support the common terrorist recruiter narrative that Muslims will never fully belong. Supporting and integrating immigrant communities and treating terrorism as a joint-threat affecting, all regardless of origin or religion, is the only way to guarantee lasting cooperation and success in the fight against terrorism.


Sheila Archambault Helke

Sheila is a national security professional working in Washington, D.C. for the federal government. She focuses on counterintelligence and counterterrorism. Sheila graduated with an M.A. in international affairs from the Catholic University of America and a B.A. in international studies with a focus on the Middle East from the University of St. Thomas.
Posted in

Leave a Comment