News that the brother of a Brussels suicide bomber will represent Belgium at the Summer Olympics in Brazil brings to mind American presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s wild proposal that US forces should kill the families of terrorists.
Trump later dissembled on the point but only to the extent that the United States should “go after” the families rather than killing them outright.
So what would Trump do with Mourad Laachraoui, 21, ace taekwondo fighter? He happens to be the younger brother of Najim, who detonated a suicide bomb at Brussels airport on March 22nd.
The siblings could not be more different. Najim, who was one of two bombers who died at Brussels Airport, is said to be linked to the Paris attacks in November. He spent three years as an Islamic State (ISIS) fighter in Syria.
His family says it lost contact with him. By every token — in deed and in action — Najim Laachraoui appeared to be divorced from his law-abiding family. He certainly did not serve as a role model for his younger brother.
Najim wanted to fight the system by blowing it up. Mourad’s notion of fighting is to strive for sporting excellence. After winning a silver medal at the 2015 world championships in South Korea, he said he wanted to go for Olympic gold: “I fought. I fight. I will always fight.”
Should Mourad be punished for the sins of his brother? Should the Laachraoui family forever bear the bloody mark of Najim’s crimes?
Mourad’s and Najim’s very different trajectories go to the heart of the debate over collective punishment and counterterror policy. Collective punishment is dangerous and fundamentally unjust. It sparks resentment in the innocent and feeds the very sense of victimhood that terrorists seek to excise by violent acts. It is the antithesis of the civilised process of settling grievances — real or perceived — by rule of law rather than by the law of the jungle.
It is telling that a wannabe strongman such as Trump has proposed so contentious and cruel a way of dealing with people who are fatefully linked by blood to a terrorist. For the United States that would be an outrageous uncoupling from international law. But politicians who espouse — outright or in more covert ways — the eye-for-an-eye strategy, generally portray themselves as fearless protectors of their people. In fact, they are the reverse.
Consider the two men who lead countries that often employ collective punishment as a counterterrorism tactic: Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Netanyahu, a former commando with a somewhat single-issue preoccupation with security, has been described by those who know him personally as a fearful “mythomaniac” prone to a sense of his own “grandeur”. Putin, a former KGB officer with a propensity for photo opportunities that stress his machismo, has shown signs of narcissistic megalomania and aggressive self-entitlement.
Trump has not been elected to any public office but his personality traits — authoritarianism, demagoguery, self-love — chime with other politicians who enable or propound collective punishment.
It may not be too much of a stretch to say that the collective punishment brigade has a shared belief that all politics is war and that peace is for wimps.
Seeking revenge for a violent act from the perpetrators’ family may be profoundly unwise and self-defeating. Russia and Israel are good examples of the perils of targeting the families of violent men and women who attack the state.
Human rights groups say Russian security services routinely arrest, torture and kill relatives. In fact, Russian MP Kirill V. Kabanov, who serves on Putin’s human rights council, is on record describing relatives as “accomplices”. Kabanov once said of a potential suicide attacker “he should understand his relatives will be treated as accomplices”. A terrorist’s family is not guilty, he added, if they report his or her intentions “before the fact… if he did not, he is guilty.”
Moscow has also pursued a strategy routinely used in Israel of demolishing the houses of suspected insurgents in Chechnya and Dagestan.
This sort of systematic abuse of whole families radicalises communities, according to Caucasus expert and International Crisis Group analyst Ekaterina Sokirianskaia. “When innocent Muslims are targeted for the expediency of security services, this legitimises the jihadist cause,” she said.
The same sort of state-sanctioned violence against the innocent is part of the grim story in Israel. So much so that in March Netanyahu’s lead proposal to combat the third intifada and dissuade future Palestinian assailants was the expulsion of family members to Gaza. This, on top of the draconian practice of demolishing attackers’ homes, which was, until recently, regularly approved by the Israeli Supreme Court.
Interestingly, state vengefulness, especially in Israel, continues despite the consensus among Defence officials that it did not achieve much during the second intifada, which ran five years from 2000. Officials said targeting families actually added to the stew of resentment and hopelessness and could stoke them to retaliate.
Collective punishment is, of course, prohibited by the Geneva Conventions but we do not need the arcane rules of international law to know right from wrong.