On March 22 in Brussels, Belgium, three bombs were detonated at major transportation hubs in the city. Brussels, which as home to the European Union and NATO serves as the political capital of Europe, was hit by deadly attacks at the airport and at a subway station.
ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks, in the aftermath of the capture of Salah Abdeslam, one of the main perpetrators of the Paris attacks from Nov. 13, 2015, four days before the attacks on Brussels. Belgian authorities even had an intelligence report of what was coming — but despite this information, terrorist attacks are particularly difficult to thwart.
After back-to-back attacks in Paris and Brussels in the span of five months, many people are wondering: what’s next?
Since ISIS is responsible for both, the response requires a larger context. A war against ISIS is concurrently being fought on two fronts, and should be thought of as such.
First, there is a direct, more conventional war wherein Syrian and Iraqi proxies fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq with support from American, Russian, and allied air forces, along with limited tactical support on the ground from these same actors. It is a complex conflict with multiple different sides involving governments, a range of different opposition forces, representatives of regional governments like the Kurdish Peshmerga, and ISIS.
Second, in the aftermath of Paris and Brussels, western governments should realize that one of the fronts of the war against ISIS is being fought at home. An effective counterterrorism strategy in Western Europe and North America, and also in parts of North Africa and the Middle East, will be urgent in stopping future attacks.
On the first front, ISIS is beginning to lose ground in Syria and Iraq. The swath of territory controlled by the group is shrinking, and the bombing campaigns are beginning to make a difference. This strategy should continue, and should be bolstered with additional support and strategic bombing, to continue decreasing the size and scope of ISIS in the region. Another issue is creating a stable, post-conflict situation after the defeat of ISIS will be very difficult, and will cause tensions for decades to come if a reasonable solution is not found. But better governance must be a priority. Disaffected Sunni Muslims in Iraq have been used as pawns in the rise of al-Qaeda, and then ISIS. Another group will simply rise and take the place of ISIS if better conditions are not created.
On the second front, ISIS will continue to attack North America, Europe, and the Mideast/North Africa region until the group is substantially weakened, and Sunni Muslims in particular have the ability to lead economically fruitful lives in more stable, well-governed countries.
Similar challenges exist in Europe. One of the greatest issues for Brussels is preventing further attacks. Belgium has the highest per capita homegrown ISIS population that has been radicalized, and has fought in Iraq and/or Syria. Many of these ISIS recruits come from the “croissant pauvre,” or the so-called poverty crescent along the western and northern communes (boroughs) of the city such as Molenbeek, Scharbeek, and Anderlecht. Addressing this issue will take tact, but is necessary to tackle the seeds of radicalization. Not addressing ite means that Brussels will remain vulnerable for future attacks.
Other major cities in Europe like Paris, London, and Berlin will also have concerns, given similar, albeit lesser, circumstances in comparison to Brussels. Given the impact of Russia’s actions in Syria and Iraq against ISIS, there is significant vulnerability in the major cities of Russia. The largest cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg have been hit by terrorists on numerous occasions, but usually from groups operating within the North Caucasus region of Russia. Both cities are vulnerable right now.
Stopping terrorism is an enormous task. Meshing effective air strikes and support for allies on the ground against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, along with better governance and economic opportunities in the Middle East and in Europe is a large-scale assignment, but improvements here will undercut support for ISIS on both fronts.
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Glen Duerr, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of International Studies at Cedarville University. He has spent significant time in Brussels conducting research for his dissertation, and his related book entitled, “Secessionism and the European Union: The Future of Flanders, Scotland, and Catalonia.”