Other than the tragic loss of at least 31 lives and injuries to over 300 people, perhaps the most sobering aspect of the 22 March attacks by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) in Brussels is the resignation with which it was expected. European law-enforcement and intelligence agencies were not believed capable of stopping the next attack after the Paris attacks on 13 November 2015 that killed 130 people. That operation signalled a new phase of ISIS’s campaign that would supplement its faltering attempt to establish a caliphate in the Middle East and North Africa with concerted out-of-area attacks and propaganda efforts to inspire independent sympathisers – ‘lone wolves’ like the couple who staged the attack in San Bernardino, California, on 2 December – so as to enhance its brand and thicken the flow of recruits. According to a New York Times analysis, since 2014 ISIS has executed or inspired 29 attacks on Westerners worldwide, killing more than 650 people. Brussels, like Paris, was a prominent symbolic target, arguably even higher in value given its status as headquarters of both NATO and the European Union.
In the aftermath, there have been predictable and in some ways perfunctory calls for international solidarity, tightened airport and ground transportation security, restrictions on the entry of Middle Eastern refugees and the movements of potential foreign fighters, more intelligence and security personnel, hardened nuclear plant security, ramped-up airstrikes on ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq, and more serious consideration of ground deployments. Some of the most intensely urged remedies have been precisely those put forth well over a decade ago, after the 11 September 2001 attacks, the Madrid attacks in 2004, and the London attacks in 2005: on the hard security side, greater intelligence-sharing and tighter borders within and outside the EU; on the ‘root causes’ side, more welcoming and assimilative social policies towards Europe’s Muslims. Although criticisms of the European counter-terrorism apparatus – especially from American commentators – have been overblown, the undeniable salience of long-standing problems reflects their persistent intractability.
Overall, the resolute if grim understanding, and most likely the correct one, is that Brussels confirmed the post-Paris threat assessment and reflects what will be business as usual: periodic terrorist attacks on European soil, with a rising threat of attacks on United States territory. Islamist terrorists will not go quietly or quickly, and Islamic terrorist infrastructure in Europe, which long predated ISIS, will not be easily dismantled. This bleak reality calls for a considered assessment of ISIS’s strategy.
ISIS’s strategic options
ISIS is under increasing pressure from the US-led air campaign – for more than 18 months, US warplanes have pounded its positions in Iraq and Syria with nearly 10,000 airstrikes, killing about 28,000 fighters – and Kurdish and moderate Syrian opposition ground militias as well as Assad’s forces, which recently retook Palmyra. As of January, US military officials indicated that the group had lost 40% of the territory it held in Iraq, 20% of that it held in Syria, and its territory has continued to diminish. US special-operations forces are also targeting ISIS leaders more successfully, having killed second-in-command Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli on 25 March and minister of war Omar al-Shishani the week before. For these immediate reasons, ISIS appears increasingly inclined to try to salvage its prestige and recruiting power by hitting relatively soft targets in European cities.
Its deeper strategic goals are more opaque. One possible inference is that ISIS may have extended its operations to Europe to deter the United States from escalating in the Middle East theatre, by bleeding European allies and implicitly threatening similar attacks on the US homeland. A second possibility is that ISIS’s leadership – acutely aware that its ancestor al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) arose as the result of US military ground intervention and killed more Americans than any other al-Qaeda franchise – recognises that even if out-of-area terrorist attacks do not deter the United States’ further militarisation of its regional counter-terrorism effort, it could ultimately benefit ISIS in terms of recruitment and prestige. A Middle East in violent geopolitical turmoil jibes with apocalyptic jihadist eschatology, which is as big a selling point for ISIS now as it was for al-Qaeda a decade ago.
A third, more radical rationale is that ISIS simply aims to mount a sustained high-tempo urban-warfare campaign, gunning down innocents and blowing them up in place like a turbocharged Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA). This scenario implies an open-ended transnational campaign that could involve the redeployment of some of ISIS’s Middle East contingent – estimated by the US intelligence community to be up to 25,000 fighters strong, by some others to be far higher – to Europe to assist the roughly 5,000 ISIS-connected individuals there, some of whom evidently possess key skills such as bomb-making and have themselves been blooded in Iraq and Syria, and escalate the out-of-area terrorist campaign now under way. This is the gravest possibility.
Transnational jihad, from apocalyptic attack to urban warfare Because ISIS is a direct descendant of al-Qaeda, its experience would presumptively inform ISIS’s strategy. Al-Qaeda’s strategy never quite blossomed into full-blown out-of-area urban warfare, but for reasons that may not apply as firmly to ISIS. With 9/11, al-Qaeda seemed to box itself in by setting such a high bar. Immediately following the attacks, al-Qaeda privileged the big, expressive statement, apparently reluctant to back any attacks on high-value targets in the United States and Europe unless they were at least comparable to the Twin Towers and Pentagon operations in audacity and impact. This may have been why al-Qaeda did not engage in indiscriminate urban terror attacks using the techniques of more constrained ethno-nationalist and ideological terrorist groups like the IRA, Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA), the Red Brigades and the Baader-Meinhof Gang.
The sophisticated, mould-breaking attacks that would trump 9/11 never came not only because al-Qaeda’s prime targets upgraded their homeland-security measures but also because the US-led invasion of Afghanistan hobbled the group’s planning and command-and-control capabilities. In the early noughts, with its leadership besieged in Pakistan, al-Qaeda lacked the capacity to mount such operations and had no choice but to use conventional explosives and old-fashioned terrorist tactics to hit soft targets sporadically and opportunistically, as in the bombing of nightclubs in Bali, trains in Madrid, and buses and subway cars in London. These operations, and later Lashkar e-Taiba’s savage and protracted raid on Mumbai leisure spots in 2008, demonstrated the brutal efficacy of those tactics, and how easily they could be juiced to produce the mass casualties favoured by jihadists.
With the Times Square car-bomb attempt in May 2010 and several subsequent thwarted plots in Europe, al-Qaeda appeared ready to end its post-Afghanistan retreat and embrace old-school methods as the most realistic means of achieving its grand objectives. A second-generation army that included veterans seasoned by the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan and hard-to-detect ‘cleanskins’ without terrorist pedigrees or criminal records would execute low-intensity operations in densely populated areas, using both conventional military weapons (like assault rifles) and standard terrorist weapons (such as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs). In fact, Abd al-Aziz al-Muqrin, the late leader of the jihad in Saudi Arabia and the author of the early al-Qaeda combat manual ‘The War Against Cities’, envisioned just this brand of jihad – not toppling skyscrapers.
The United States’ takedown of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, improved US targeting of al-Qaeda leaders (especially with drones), and the group’s subsequent disarray, however, forced it to retrench, decentralise and focus on the greater Middle East rather than Europe and the United States. This meant ceding more operational responsibility to regional franchises. The most potent of them had been AQI, which the backlash of the Sunni Awakening, helped along by the US surge that began in 2007, had subdued. Syria’s civil war presented an opportunity for revival. By the time al-Qaeda central decided to take a strong hand in Syria through Jabhat al-Nusra, its Syrian affiliate, AQI veterans were already there in the form of ISIS, infiltrating and fighting for the Syrian opposition. ISIS’s Iraqi leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi decided al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s gradual approach – overthrow Assad first, then move towards a regional caliphate – was too timid and rejected his attempt to exclude ISIS from Syria. ISIS broke away and became the dominant jihadist player on the ground, steadily gaining Syrian territory, as well as regional and global influence.
Having explicitly split from al-Qaeda and made its bones on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, ISIS is neither burdened with the precedent of 9/11 nor yet as compromised in terms of command and control. ISIS commanders certainly realise that sophisticated and coordinated urban terrorist attacks do not require substantial contributions from the front lines. Urban warfare involves fewer and cheaper resources, less exacting planning and coordination, relatively inconspicuous preparation, readily concealable small arms and dual-use items like fertiliser, and fewer operatives. An armoured battalion is not required. Furthermore, there is jihadist terrorist infrastructure in place in a number of Western European countries, and recent infiltrations may have enhanced it. And ‘lone wolves’ merely inspired or encouraged by ISIS, like the San Bernardino attackers, can often muster the kit, the know-how and the will to perpetrate effective terrorist operations with no commitment of resources from ISIS.
Thus, ISIS’s logistical and other operational challenges for out-of-area terrorist attacks are comparatively low, and the strategic baggage that might inhibit them is at least lighter than al-Qaeda’s. If executed with sufficient frequency, such attacks could palsy any government and shake public confidence. In particular, a sustained campaign could eventually provoke direct, ground-level armed engagement with security forces, as occurred in Belfast and Beirut in the 1970s and 1980s. This could test the political and operational capacity of the liberal state to counter terrorism even more stiffly than al-Qaeda has done.
Counter-terrorism responses Programmatically, the sensible course of action for the transatlantic coalition is to walk the line between containing ISIS in the region, and suppressing and deterring it in Europe and the United States. Regionally, this means continuing to focus on maintaining the surprisingly resilient ceasefire now in place, pursuing Syria’s political transition by the diplomatic means of the Geneva process, and suppressing ISIS by applying limited military force to deny it territory and decimate its leadership.
Meanwhile, Europe is considerably more vulnerable than the United States to ISIS terrorism due to the continent’s physical proximity to the Middle East, a more alienated and proportionately larger Muslim population and pre-existing terrorist infrastructure. While FBI Director James Comey has indicated that an active ISIS presence is the ‘new normal’ in the US, there appear to be far fewer operatives there than in Europe, and the only successful attack related to ISIS has been the one in San Bernardino, which the group merely inspired and did not direct. Europe faces the more urgent homeland security challenges.
The Brussels attacks demonstrated that ISIS terrorists can traverse borders within and outside the EU. But contrary to some assertions, mainly from Americans, after 9/11 Europe’s intelligence services did adapt quite effectively to the new jihadist threat by palpably increasing intelligence- and best-practices sharing, as well as operational coordination and cooperation, both bilaterally and through the office of the EU Counter-terrorism Coordinator, Europol and the EU Intelligence Analysis Centre. They will now have to re-adjust to the shift in jihadist strategy from al-Qaeda central’s bombing operations, which sought to emulate 9/11, to ISIS’s cell-based IED and strafing operations, which are closer to ‘old terrorism’ tactics though aimed at taking more casualties, more indiscriminately. In this context anyway, it may be salutary that many European countries – in particular, the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain – have a depth of experience to draw on in dealing with such threats. Suggestions that Europe’s counter-terrorism apparatus needs to be overhauled on a wholesale basis thus appear to be overstated. While EU institutions lack the degree of centralisation, coordination and enforcement muscle afforded by the FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center and the Joint Terrorism Task Force, the EU is not a single federal entity like the United States, and cannot be expected to mimic its system.
At least some of the crucial law-enforcement and intelligence shortfalls preceding the Brussels attacks, however, did appear avoidable. In particular, Belgian authorities failed to monitor Brussels airport suicide bomber and Belgian national Ibrahim al-Bakraoui despite his detention at the Syrian border and subsequent deportation by Turkish authorities to The Netherlands with explicit warnings to Belgian officials of his likely status as an ISIS foreign fighter. The Belgian authorities also mounted a highly productive post-attack surge in counter-terrorism enforcement activity, interdicting at least one active terrorist plot, and establishing links between the Paris and Brussels operatives. These factors support an inference that a more integrative and anticipatory approach to terrorism could be achievable within existing or marginally expanded legal and institutional parameters, and could prevent some attacks by more promptly and systematically collating and sharing intelligence, and perhaps running down connections between operatives in different locales.
Given the relatively short span of four months between the Paris and Brussels attacks, and the apparent persistence of both short- and long-term threats, EU officials and national European leaders may now appreciate the indispensability of such an approach all the more. The hope is that Europe’s political leaders and electorates – the UK’s in particular, in light of its intelligence pre-eminence and uneasy relationship with the EU – also register that operating in an overarching EU framework enables national agencies to access actionable data that would otherwise be harder to obtain, and more broadly to influence the overall direction of EU counter-terrorism policies and operations. The synergy among national intelligence and law-enforcement institutions developed over the past 15 years depends in considerable part on the EU’s political and institutional unity, and its fragmentation would impair the counter-terrorism performance of any countries that broke away as well as that of EU agencies. As the Paris attacks occurred, European intelligence services had been due to meet there to establish a European operational task force to address the ISIS threat. This effort should and presumably will be accelerated.
In any case, security bureaucracies can only ‘mow the grass’ – that is, contain the terrorist threat. To marginalise or eradicate it, enlightened social policies that complement well-designed security regimes are required to ameliorate the root causes of homegrown radicalisation, which include social and political marginalisation. If Europe-wide mobilisation on this score was hard 15 years ago, it is all the more daunting now. Then, although Europe’s supranational policy unity was subject to social and cultural exceptions that were politically required for broad membership, the EU was a strong and confident institution, invigorated by the successful launch of the euro. Now it has been hobbled by the global economic crisis, the flattened trajectory of its common foreign and security policy, and the rise of retrogressive national far-right movements – and, in the UK’s case, a populist impulse to exit the Union. Insofar as shrinking the EU or diluting its authority would be driven in part by bigotry, racism and xenophobia, it would stand to exacerbate the problem of Muslim alienation in Europe and spur radicalisation. That would play into ISIS’s hands. A more cohesive EU rather than a fragmented one is needed to counter the threat of ISIS terrorism as fully as possible and secure Europe’s population.