Worldview: Rutgers team's antiterror ideas travel far

2016-07-17-Nice-France-attack
Scores died last week in Nice, France, the latest shocking terror attack.

BRUSSELS - The terrorist who decimated a holiday crowd in Nice on Bastille Day was the latest incarnation of the nightmare confronting police in Brussels, Paris, Toulouse, Denmark, Orlando, and elsewhere.

How do you prevent a lone wolf from wreaking havoc on a community when the police have no previous indication of his terrorist leanings?

A team of security experts from Rutgers University, working with community leaders and police in Molenbeek, Brussels, thinks it has come up with an answer. Molenbeek, you'll recall, was home to the terrorists who attacked Paris in November and the Brussels airport in March.

I attended a workshop with the Rutgers team members and their Belgian counterparts last week in Brussels, and I'll get to their conclusions in a minute. But first, the story of how Rutgers came to be involved in Molenbeek.

The impetus for the project was the terror attack on the Brussels Jewish Museum on May 24, 2014, one of the first ISIS-linked attacks in Europe.

That attack galvanized John Farmer, a former Rutgers Law School dean who now heads their Institute for Emergency Preparedness and Homeland Security, and who had been on sabbatical in Paris. With a grant from Rutgers alum Paul Miller, he visited Jewish communities across Europe with the goal of compiling the best U.S. and European practices for protecting vulnerable communities. Farmer was meeting with Jewish leaders in Paris when ISIS terrorists attacked a kosher grocery and the Charlie Hebdo newspaper in January 2015.

But as ISIS attacks mounted - including Paris in November 2015 and Brussels in March 2016 - Farmer felt compelled to develop a more concrete policing model that could be used by a broader range of threatened communities - even Molenbeek. He found a receptive environment in Brussels, starting with its chief police commissioner, Saad Amrani, who visited Rutgers.

The project idea - to draw police, civic and business organizations, and local citizens into partnerships and develop community policing - was not new. But it needed reviving and adaptation. Especially for Molenbeek or other European Muslim communities where police and citizens regarded each other with hostility and suspicion.

"What we hope to see in Molenbeek is a fundamental change in the relationship between the police and public," Farmer said.

"The missing link," adds Paul Goldenberg, a senior security adviser to the project, "is that no one is paying attention to the community." He says the project's goal is to "build communities of trust" that include business, religious, and community leaders - so that local citizens are willing to share information with police and to recognize that terror attacks also threaten them.

In the past, that lack of trust in law enforcement has been a problem not just with Muslim-Belgian communities but with the Brussels Jewish community as well.

But the local Molenbeek police were eager to work with the Rutgers team, as I learned when I visited Division Commissioner of Police Johan De Becker. We met in his station house in the heart of this working-class district of shops and rowhouses.

De Becker told me a federal police reform in 2006 had basically dispensed with community policing and produced a constant turnover of officers. He is short 125 cops, with almost none from the local Moroccan-Belgian community because so few youths can meet the educational requirements.

"We are really trying to reestablish community policing with ties to the local community," De Becker said. "The Rutgers project is indispensable because I can't do the training I need."

De Becker said something else important. "A majority of the population rejects these terrorists," he said firmly. "After the Paris and Brussels attacks, the majority reject that type of violence." No doubt the Nice atrocity will strengthen that state of mind.

I had the same impression when I visited Molenbeek in March, just before the airport bombing. I met residents whose prime concern had nothing to do with radical Islam, but rather was the need for improvement in the lousy local schools.

That impression was reaffirmed on this visit when I met Geraldine Henneghien, the mother of 18-year-old Anis Abou Bram, who died fighting for ISIS in Syria. A financial controller married to a salesman, she recounted her desperate effort to prevent her son from traveling to Syria. When she learned of his plans, she reported him to the police, in an effort to have him blocked at the airport, but a judge refused to issue the restraining order.

Henneghien later learned her son had been recruited by a son of the local imam who told Anis it was his duty to fight to save Muslim lives in Syria. The recruiter still operates freely in Molenbeek. Meantime, she says, police have not reached out to an association of parents with children who left for Syria, and died there or are still at risk. The police often harass the siblings of those who have left.

So the Rutgers project in Brussels couldn't be more timely. Last week, it brought together U.S. and European security experts and trained 21 Belgian chief police inspectors, as well as community engagement specialists, and will do a larger training in September.

The team also did a series of video interviews in Molenbeek with businessmen, community leaders, and young people that are used in the training. The most powerful film clip is of Henneghien, the mother of Anis. It provides a vivid reminder of what the police miss by not reaching out to citizens who want to fight back against terrorism.

That same willingness to help is no doubt present amongst many French citizens of Muslim faith in the banlieues (Muslim ghettos around large French cities) if the French police knew how to harness it.

If the Rutgers team can develop a model that helps police in Europe - or in America - do a better job of community engagement, it will have performed a service that is desperately needed right now.

trubin@phillynews.com