ISIS Flourishes in Failed States: Syria, Iraq, Libya and Now Belgium

Belgium, the nerve center of Europe, is in some aspects a failed state. Yet the recent wave of violence shows that Israel, for all its experience, is no better off.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Belgium's flag drawn on a piece of paper next to a message reading, "I am Brussels and I am Congo, stop violence" at the makeshift memorial outside the stock exchange in Brussels, March 27, 2016.
Belgium's flag drawn on a piece of paper next to a message reading, "I am Brussels and I am Congo, stop violence" at the makeshift memorial outside the stock exchange in Brussels, March 27, 2016.Credit: AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

BRUSSELS – Every few hours, more details emerge about the failures of Belgium’s security and law-enforcement agencies in the investigation prior to last week’s deadly explosions in Brussels, emphasizing how the country is woefully unprepared to deal with a wave of Islamist terror. Belgium has become not just a prime target for ISIS but a logistical hub for acts against neighboring countries, particularly France.

Meanwhile, in recent days, reports have been coming in rapidly of setbacks for ISIS in its main strongholds in Syria and Iraq. The air strikes by the U.S.-led coalition, and to a lesser extent by Russia, have helped ground forces to retake some of the areas controlled by Islamic State and killed a number of senior leaders in the Jihadist movement. However, it’s still much too early to foresee a reduction in ISIS’ capacity to motivate and direct terror attacks in the heart of Europe.

Though it has lost territory and commanders, ISIS continues to hold its main headquarters in Syria and Iraq, while enlarging and deepening its foothold in Libya. The air campaign has harmed it but not fundamentally changed the climate which allows it to flourish. The vacuum created by “failed states” is the space in which Al-Qaida earlier and now ISIS have established their own quasi-states with training camps, funding and propaganda departments and have attracted thousands of volunteer jihadists from around the world – later sending some of them back to carry out attacks in their home-countries.

So far, both the policy of the previous Bush administration of sending large military forces to sort out the failed states and that of Barack Obama to rely on drones, air-power and local forces (even when it means turning a blind-eye to massacres carried out by Shia militias in Iraq and giving up on the demand of removing Bashar Assad whose forces have murdered far more civilians than ISIS in Syria), have failed. The stagnant swamps of the failed states remain as breeding-grounds for terror. But none of this is new. What last week’s Brussels attacks have revealed is the existence of failed states also in Europe.

It may be hard to notice under Brussels’ daily prosperous exterior but it really shouldn’t surprise us that Belgium has become what one veteran European Union diplomat who has lived for twenty years in the city describes as “the weakest point in the EU’s security network.” Belgium may seem like an island of stability in some ways; after all, only five years ago it functioned perfectly well for 589 days without an elected government. But political paralysis on the federal level, caused largely, but not only, by the country’s division into two main groups, the Flemish and the francophone Walloons, can make it very difficult to maintain national security agencies, which need increased funding in such a period and have to undergo radical policy changes to face new threats.

This is how Belgium has reached the point where it is fighting ISIS while the law doesn’t allow police to carry out raids at night or hold terror suspects for over 24 hours, and where even when they received specific warnings on attacks on the airport and a metro station and knew the identities of the alleged perpetrators in advance, it proved incapable of providing adequate security or apprehending the suspects.

Belgium, the nerve center of Europe, is in some aspects a failed state. Its police authorities at the local level are poorly-funded, ill organized and riven with rivalry, which makes coordination difficult, and they are just as dysfunctional at the national level. And while it hosts the main pan-European institutions, they are also ill-equipped to help. The Eurocrats are efficient at enforcing trade regulations and economic policies, but near-helpless when it comes to security and emigration matters. Another member state that is in some ways a failed-state is Greece, which lacks the resources and the political willpower to do anything to stem the flow of migrants arriving on its shores and making their way into the continent. “Greece isn’t functioning on the migration issues,” says a political adviser at the European parliament.

“The EU can force the Greek government to adopt its austerity policies but not to close its borders. And the EU is anyway fearful of tampering with borders. After all, prosperity in Europe is largely due to open borders. If a truck carrying produce from Poland to Britain had to stop and be checked at every border on the way, it would cost billions to the European economy.”

The EU in its various incarnations has been responsible for nearly six decades of prosperity and peace. It was worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize it received two years ago, but a large part of the credit should go to another international organization headquartered in Belgium – The North Atlantic Treaty Organization. NATO was vital to ensuring Europe’s peace throughout the Cold War and remains the most efficient security alliance of Western democracies. NATO has allowed Europe to continue enjoying the military resources of the United States, which has been invested in the continent’s security since it entered the First World War 99 years ago in April 1917.

Ironically, just when the United States is undergoing a period of retrenchment under President Obama and the success of candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders prove that American isolationism is on the rise, Europe urgently needs the United States to lead NATO in its transformation to a 21st century security alliance. It probably is in less need of advice from Israel.

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz’s ugly statement last Wednesday that “if in Belgium they continue eating chocolate, and if they continue to enjoy life and appear as great liberals and democrats, and do not recognize that some of the Muslims are organizing terror, they will not be able to fight them” did have some truth in it. It’s very easy in a country which still has a pretty high standard of living to recognize that national institutions and security agencies can’t confront terrorism. But beyond the complete insensitivity of speaking like that in the media while body-parts were still being collected from the scenes of killing in Brussels, Katz’s words could easily have been paraphrased for an Israeli reality. If Israelis continue celebrating every exit of a high-tech company, enjoying life and claiming that they are just and moral, and don’t realize that their security forces alone are incapable of delivering a solution to the wave of Palestinian attacks, they won’t be able to fight them.

Failed-states are not just around the corner, in Syria and Sinai, but one of them is rapidly coming into existence in the West Bank as Abu Mazen’s rule enters its twilight period. The long failure of confronting settler violence and Jewish “price tag” terror also has some of the characteristics of a failed-state. Israel’s security establishment is without a doubt infinitely more experienced than the Belgians’ in fighting terror, yet despite that, more Israelis have been murdered in stabbing, ramming and shooting attacks in the current round of violence than were killed in the explosions last week in Brussels. Israel’s leaders seem no more capable than the Belgian politicians at adapting to a changing environment and addressing the failed-state vacuum on their doorsteps.

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