Foreign Relations & International Law Terrorism & Extremism

What the Brussels Attacks Tell Us About the State of ISIS and Europe Today

Daniel Byman
Thursday, March 24, 2016, 3:34 PM

Editor's Note: This piece originally appears on Markaz.

Published by The Lawfare Institute
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Editor's Note: This piece originally appears on Markaz.

The attack in Brussels is another sobering indicator of the emergent European front in the fight against the Islamic State. As I wrote in the New York Times on Wednesday, ISIS’s recent battlefield defeats in Iraq and Syria threaten the narrative of success that has been the foundation of its tremendous popularity and power. If the Islamic State cannot triumph militarily against the increasingly successful U.S-led coalition, the group will have to look elsewhere for victories. Unfortunately, Europe is a natural and attractive target for the jihadists, as it struggles with the refugee crisis, obstacles to cooperation on counterterrorism, and longstanding difficulties with Muslim integration.

Grasping for new threads

The Islamic State’s incredible military success in Iraq and Syria allowed it to seize the preeminent position in the broader jihadist movement. However, since its peak in the summer of 2014, the Islamic State has lost 40 percent of its territory, including major cities and thousands of fighters.

Now the group seeks alternative avenues of success, and Europe provides opportunities. More than 5,000 Europeans, including a disproportionate number of French and Belgians, have joined the Islamic State. Attacks conducted by extended networks in Europe allow the Islamic State to claim it is striking back against its enemies and avenging battlefield losses.

Failure to communicate

The Brussels attack, coming only days after the last remaining suspect in November’s Paris bombings was captured in his Brussels neighborhood, also demonstrates that European security services are overwhelmed. Despite modest growth in national security budgets, European intelligence and law enforcement officers are overstretched dealing with the scale of the jihadist challenge. The most egregious failure has been the lack of European intelligence cooperation, which wastes scarce resources on duplicative efforts and leaves gaping vulnerabilities between the open borders within the EU.

A homegrown problem

Perhaps the greatest long-term European challenge in fighting the Islamic State is integrating the continent’s alienated Muslim population. This failure creates another dangerous rift in the European experiment. Far-right parties, championing anti-immigrant and nationalist messages, are growing more popular; a trend that is likely to only accelerate with the increasing incidence of terrorism and the unrelenting refugee crisis. The rise of European xenophobia facilities the efforts of jihadist recruiters among Europe’s alienated Muslim communities.

The U.S.-led coalition must continue to target ISIS in its core territory in Iraq and Syria. But the West must also be prepared for further jihadist efforts to strike back at home. And in the meantime, Western nations—particularly in Europe—must work to weaken the jihadist influence within their own populations by addressing core problems such as alienation among Muslim citizens.

Daniel Byman is a professor at Georgetown University, Lawfare's Foreign Policy Essay editor, and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

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