Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

ISIS and Europe’s questions of identity

A redressal of internal fissures in Europe has to accompany military action

Last week, the Brussels bombings, coming on the heels of the Paris attacks in November, underlined Europe’s vulnerability and the scope of the Islamic State (ISIS) network and operations within its boundaries. This week, ISIS has been pushed out of Palmyra in Syria by the Syrian army, reversing gains made 10 months ago. These contrasting developments hint at the shape of ISIS’s continuing evolution. And as importantly—perhaps more so—they underscore the question of Europe’s response and the fundamental nature of the European project.

Brussels and Paris mark the beginning of a new phase—the rise of a more focused, efficient ISIS network in Europe. The two years preceding them were a learning curve; failed attacks mounted under the direction of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the man who oversaw the Paris attacks, lacked planning and the requisite skill set. ISIS operatives in Europe have been training to use triacetone triperoxide—their signature explosive, easily made from freely available items such as nail polish remover—since 2013. But it is difficult to master because of its unstable nature and using it requires a degree of professional training.

The recent attacks have shown that ISIS has begun to attain that. And they are paired with a shift in tactics hinted at last March by Boubaker al-Hakim, a leading French jihadist, who advised followers to “stop looking for specific targets. Hit everyone and anything". In effect, the group is shifting from insurgency tactics—taking aim at targets with strategic or symbolic value—to a more distilled form of terrorism, creating as much chaos and pain as possible with the largest potential number of victims.

And therein lies the European Union’s greatest dilemma. In the wake of Brussels, as in the wake of Paris, there will be a focus on the state’s security apparatus and the operational details of its anti-terrorism efforts. This is as it should be. The poor security infrastructure of a number of European states and the patchwork nature of the EU’s intelligence networks—confined by national boundaries and hobbled by ineffective information sharing when up against a threat that, thanks to the Schengen system, faces no such constraints—must be addressed.

But the deeper questions pertaining to European multiculturalism are more difficult to get a grip on. It is a given that the vast majority of Europe’s Muslims have no truck with the Islamic State’s ideology, objectives or tactics. Issues of integration and economic opportunities, however, are not new. And the alienation and ghettoization they have caused in France, Belgium and elsewhere on the continent have resonated in unhealthy fashion.

In Belgium in the 1990s, for instance, arms and ammunition were sourced by jihadists in Brussels for Algerian terrorists attempting to establish an Islamic state, while Belgian residents travelled to fight in Chechnya and elsewhere.

It is easier to have a meaningful conversation about such issues in times of economic plenty. European states failed to do so. The conflict proliferating in West Asia, driving a million refugees and economic migrants to the EU each year, has exacerbated the stress in the European economies present since 2008. And an ugly nativist response has arisen from the right of European politics and entered the mainstream across the continent, capitalizing on the understandable fears of a populace uncertain about the cultural and economic impact of the surge in immigration.

The ISIS understands this perfectly and is capitalizing upon it in both strategic and tactical terms. As far as the former goes, recent reverses on the ground in Syria and Iraq—in the past six months, it has lost about 30% of the territory it held at its peak in 2014—led it to shift focus from controlling territory to spreading its influence in Europe and elsewhere in a meeting of top leaders shortly before the Paris attacks, as reported by The Guardian. And as for the latter, the flow of immigrants into Europe serves to heighten political and economic tensions on the continent—a plus from ISIS’s perspective—and makes it that much easier for the group to recruit consequently radicalized Muslims with European passports to form sleeper cells.

Difficult days await Europe, not just in facing the security threat but in examining and defining European identities. Military action against the core of ISIS in West Asia by regional and western actors may degrade its capabilities and resources. But addressing the tensions and fissures in the EU require those difficult conversations if European societies are to maintain their essence without giving in to far-right xenophobia.

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