Brussels Attacks Prove the West Lacks a Universal Strategy to Fight Global Jihad

Ascribing all European terror to ISIS blurs the identities of the local terrorist cells and makes them more difficult to counter.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
Policemen stand guard near a security perimeter near the Maelbeek subway station in Brussels, March 22, 2016.
Policemen stand guard near a security perimeter near the Maelbeek subway station in Brussels, March 22, 2016.Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The claim of responsibility for Tuesday's attacks in Brussels by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) hasn’t given terror a more precise address, nor will it lead to a breakthrough in battling it.

One can assume that the attackers were European citizens, apparently Belgians. Even if they had previously undergone training in Syria or fought alongside ISIS forces, they were operating in a place where they’d lived most of their lives. They were familiar with the environment and the culture and spoke the local language. They had nurtured enormous rage toward their surroundings and/or imported an extremist ideology that persuaded them to act against “the West.”

But, in most cases, this West had been the center of their lives, until they set out on a radical path and disengaged from their former ways of life, usually spurred or facilitated by some sort of religious instruction. These terrorists are not experts in Sharia law and nor are they religious scholars. They rely on a supportive environment and sometimes on relatives or friends who have gone through similar experiences.

Cultivating local terror cells in both Western and Arab countries is the modus operandi adopted by Al-Qaida under Osama bin Laden. The organization established branches throughout the Middle East, especially after the “distant enemy,” the West, came closer when it sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. Those forces became preferred targets to sending terrorists across the sea, missions that became much more difficult, although not impossible, after the 9/11 attacks.

When Al-Qaida shifted its focus toward targets in Arab and Muslim countries, the struggle against Al-Qaida changed as well. If, in the past, Arab regimes tended to blame terror in their countries on Al-Qaida, in an effort to share the responsibility for eradicating terrorism with the international community, over the past decade every Arab country has adopted the approach that the fight against terror is local and each regime must deal with it on its own. Thus, Egypt is fighting terror groups in the Sinai Peninsula, whether they are affiliated with Islamic State or not linked to any organization. Saudi Arabia has been relatively successful in pushing Al-Qaida out of its territory and into Yemen.

ISIS inherited a large number of Al-Qaida’s local cells in the Arab world and is operating them in a similar fashion, though with one significant difference: In addition to terror for its own sake it is seeking to seize control of territories and turn them into sources of power and income. It has done so in Iraq and Syria, as well as in parts of Libya.

An injured man gestures outsude Brussels airport after explosions rocked the facility, March 22, 2016.Credit: AP

That approach doesn’t work in Western countries, however. There’s no way ISIS can gain control of territory, not even in heavily Muslim neighborhoods like Molenbeek in Brussels or the slum quarters of Paris. ISIS can’t establish “caliphates” in Turkey or even in Egypt, primarily because it will face effective and determined armies in those countries, unlike the ones in Iraq and Syria.

So, while in Arab countries the fight against ISIS involves deploying regular military forces against the group’s bases and defined military positions, the war on ISIS in Europe is not over territory but against terror. This battle mixes the combined struggle against the “serpent’s head,” that is, the ISIS bases in Iraq, Syria and Libya, with the struggle of each individual country against terror activity within its borders.

Some European countries are coordinating their efforts with Russia, Turkey and the United States in a combined struggle. But in the individual struggles in each country, the intelligence cooperation is inadequate. Not only are intelligence agencies reluctant to cooperate with one another across national borders, but even within countries the security agencies are often engaged in power struggles. Belgium is one such example. There, the Flemish and Walloon policemen perceive their operating turfs as separate, scuttling the national effort to fight terror.

The West and Israel have adopted the term “global jihad” and prefer it to the term “local terror.” The problem is that the globality of the jihad hasn’t led to effective global cooperation in the struggle against terror. On the contrary, references to “global jihad” and ascribing responsibility to ISIS and Al-Qaida blurs the identities of the local terror organizations, even though they’re the main perpetrators of these attacks.

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