The long arm of the Islamic State (ISIS) has struck again. Tuesday morning, Zaventem airport in Brussels was hit by two suicide bombers and soon after a third man detonated at Maelbeek metro station, not far from the headquarters of the European Union. At least 31 people were slaughtered and around 270 were injured. Belgium has a long history as a hub of global jihadism and some of its citizens were key in forming ISIS’s statelet. In the wake of the attack, as Western governments look for ways to hasten the demise of ISIS, it will likely be said—again—that the quickest way to do that is by striking a devil’s bargain with the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. From Assad’s role in helping ISIS lay its groundwork in Iraq even before the U.S. invasion to Assad’s help, by omission and commission, in nurturing ISIS in the years since the uprising against him began as a means of defeating the opposition to Assad’s deliberate incitement of a sectarian war, there is nothing that could be further from the truth. While Assad remains in power, ISIS will remain alive.
ISIS’s Foreign Operations
The major wave of ISIS’s foreign attacks began after Taha Falaha, ISIS’s powerful official spokesman, better known as Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, put out a call in September 2014, just after the United States began airstrikes in Syria, for Muslims “wherever you may be” to “kill a disbelieving American or European”. While Falaha named soldiers, police and intelligence officers as legitimate targets, he also specifically said: “Kill the disbeliever whether he is civilian or military, for they have the same ruling.” Falaha added that if an IED or even a rock should not be to hand and you are unable to run an infidel over in your car, “then spit in his face.” There was one notable exception.
In May 2014, a gun attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels killed four people. The man who carried it out, a psychopath named Mehdi Nemmouche, who once said, “It’s such a pleasure to cut off a baby’s head,” had been guided by a Belgian of Moroccan descent, Abdelhamid Abaaoud. Abaaoud was implicated in two further plots, one a botched attempt to blow up churches and police stations in April 2015, and the other a thwarted attempt in August 2015 to shoot-up a high-speed rail journey from Paris to Amsterdam. Despite this nuisance-level terrorism, “from late summer we knew something big was being planned,” said a French intelligence official. Abaaoud was keeping “security services busy and distracted with these mini-plots while preparing the real attack.” This impressive tradecraft paid off in the most spectacularly horrific fashion on November 13, with the co-ordinated shooting of cafés, suicide bombings against the Stade de France and the systematic butchery at the Bataclan that left 130 people dead in Paris.
There has been an argument made that ISIS is placing increasing emphasis on foreign attacks as a means of maintaining momentum as its caliphate shrinks. But this misses the timeline. The major losses suffered by ISIS—in Tikrit, Tel Abyad, Hassakeh City, Al-Houl, Sinjar, and more ambiguously in Ramadi and Al-Shadadi—all came after the foreign attacks had begun, starting after Falaha’s speech and really gathering pace in early 2015. More to the point: foreign attacks are in ISIS’s DNA and ISIS did not originate in 2014 but in the camp set up with Al-Qaeda’s seed money and run by Ahmed al-Khalayleh (Abu Musab az-Zarqawi) in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in 2000 and which was transferred to Iraq in 2002. One of the first ISIS-“inspired” attacks, for instance, was the June 2007 Glasgow airport attack. The perpetrator wrote of having “learned from [ISIS] the love for death” and ISIS’s predecessor claimed the attack.
ISIS initially declared itself a state in 2006 and its program has not altered much since then: by portraying momentum and power, on the ground by expanding the caliphate but also abroad by having the ability to punish and deter enemies or would-be enemies, ISIS is able to claim this shows the favor of God, which attracts foreign recruits at a greater rate than those who cannot make this claim. Foreign recruits, more motivated by ideology than ISIS’s in-theater recruits and with no social connection to the land of the Middle East, are prepared to sacrifice themselves and commit atrocities unhesitatingly to fortify and expand the caliphate—which helps attract in more foreign recruits. Thus, the local state-building enterprise and the foreign networks are intimately connected. Especially after ISIS’s former leaders were undone by infiltrators, ISIS has developed a mania for pre-emptive infiltration of its foes—”Don’t hear about us, hear from us,” as it has been summarized. These foreign networks ISIS is now able to activate are a sign of maturation and increased reach, not desperation.
The Paris Connection
Abaaoud was killed five days after the Paris attacks, but there was one surviving conspirator: Salah Abdeslam, who had backed out of the plot. Abdeslam, after four months of hiding in Molenbeek, the now-notorious Belgian suburb that has been called the “jihadi capital of Europe,” was arrested on Friday. The balance of probability at the present time, therefore, is that the Brussels attack was related to Abdeslam’s arrest—either as revenge or more likely to pre-empt the roll up of networks as the authorities interrogate Abdeslam—and that it was carried out by the same cell as the Paris attacks.
Daunting as it is that the same cell has managed to conduct two operations in the heart of Europe, it would actually be worse if these were two separate cells. What the degree of connection to ISIS “Central” is also remains to be seen: the November 13 attacks in Paris are the only confirmed case so far of ISIS’s leaders in Raqqa planning and ordering an attack in which they then sent operatives they had trained inside the caliphate to implement. Because of the very extensive Belgian dimension to the Paris atrocity, the attack in Brussels is not completely out of the blue, but it does raise some questions.
There is a very deep-rooted and outsized jihadi-Salafist community in Brussels and Belgium writ large related to its ideal geography so central in Europe. Belgium possesses a large and diverse Muslim population, problems in intelligence-sharing between the six government entities in the country, and a legal environment that, while not as permissive as Austria, is nonetheless problematic. What is “off-message” about this attack is that, like Vienna or Bosnia, Belgium tends to be a recruitment, fund-raising, facilitation and logistics hub, rather than a site of attacks. This is among the reasons it is likely the attack was related to Abdeslam’s arrest.
An Intelligence Failure?
Still, all talk of an “intelligence failure” should be ignored; the problem is political. There are long term policies that might have and might still at least ameliorate the problem, related to immigration and integration. There is the political system itself: an Arab dictatorship can take those it sees as radicalized into custody, submit them to re-education and simply keep the ones that aren’t “cured”. Needless to say free countries cannot utilize this option. And finally there is the simple operational policy.
It takes 20 men to monitor a terrorism suspect full-time—even when you know where he is. Governments could devote the necessary resources so that all suspects can be surveilled, but it is expensive, especially with the scale of the problem Belgium has, the largest European contributor, proportionally, excluding only Albania and Bosnia, to the jihadi-Salafists in Syria and Iraq. Belgium publically conceded—a week before this attack—that “we don’t have the infrastructure to properly investigate or monitor hundreds of individuals suspected of terror links.”
Governments usually know where to look— this is why so many people who end up committing terrorism in the West, including two of the suicide-killers in Brussels (the brothers Ibrahim and Khaled Bakraoui), are already on government watch-lists—but they often can’t afford to do more than take down their name. Governments inevitably prioritize and make trade-offs; that Brussels seems to have done this badly is a separate matter—and, again, a question for politicians, not intelligence officials.
A specific dynamic that has made Belgium one of the largest pools of recruits for ISIS is the formation and evolution of Sharia4Belgium in early 2010. Sharia4Belgium was founded as an offshoot of the British Al-Muhajiroun, led by Anjem Choudary.
Unlike the jihadi-Salafists of the 1990s, where to be allowed contact with their underground networks meant already being a die-hard true believer, Sharia4Belgium was an overt organization that ostensibly worked within the law to seize the government one convert at a time through dawa (proselytization).
Sharia4Belgium was very successful in radicalizing a large number of people in a short space of time. The authorities began acting against Sharia4Belgium in late 2012, but by then it was too late—Syria had begun, and many of the zealots decamped to the Fertile Crescent, helped by the Syrian connections of another Sharia4Belgium leader, Omar Bakri.
At least 79 Sharia4Belgium alumni have gone to Syria and Iraq where they used their pre-existing, strong presence on social media to send out messages and images, “usually with the aim of recruiting susceptible friends and family back in Europe.”
Here the public nature of Sharia4Belgium proved important: these messages reached a wider audience than if the group was concealed, exposing many more young Muslims than otherwise would have been the case to the ideas and the practice of jihadi-Salafism, creating much wider concentric circles around the actual terrorists, a strategic depth we can now see ISIS exploiting.
Founding the Caliphate
Sharia4Belgium members formed a key part of the networks that founded ISIS’s caliphate. ISIS had set up Jabhat al-Nusra as its secret Syrian wing in late 2011, but Nusra was becoming too independent. In mid-2012, ISIS’s “track two” took shape: the group began lobbying a series of people and groups in Aleppo to pledge loyalty to the caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and defect from Nusra. Instrumental in this strategy was ISIS’s deputy, Samir al-Khlifawi (Haji Bakr), a former intelligence officer in Saddam’s regime, who managed to recruit several Nusra commanders and many of the foreign jihadis already in place in Syria.
The key “track two” leaders were Amr al-Absi (Abu al-Atheer), one of the most vociferous encouragers of the caliphate declaration and one of the men who worked hardest to forge the connections that made it possible, and Tarkhan Batirashvili (Abu Omar al-Shishani). Al-Absi’s group had a large contingent of Europeans, mostly Belgians, Dutch and Frenchmen, with Batirashvili’s group had a small but significant contingent of Brits, the most infamous of whom is Mohammed Emwazi (“Jihadi John”). It was al-Absi’s group, where the deputy handling European recruits was Sharia4Belgium member Houssien Elouassaki, that Abaaoud joined in January 2014.
Al-Khlifawi fashioned ISIS’s army on Syrian soil in perhaps the most complicated way possible. Wanting to keep the Iraqi hand hidden, Al-Khlifawi forbade ISIS’s legions crossing into Syria and instead, with a few senior members such as himself, Adnan as-Suwaydawi, Adnan al-Bilawi, and Abu Ali al-Anbari—all except al-Anbari former members of the Saddam regime—directing matters in the background, ISIS used only foreigners who had military experience (the “Chechens” and Uzbeks) to lead those who didn’t (everyone else, particularly the Europeans).
ISIS’s conquests were preceded mostly by its espionage work, but when force was needed, Syrians were hit with the dual lessons that fanaticism must not be underestimated and that Stalin was right: quantity has a quality all its own. Belgians were a significant component of the ISIS ground troops who inflicted those lessons on Syria.
It’s interesting to note that Abaaoud actually rather broke this mold—as did Emwazi. Abaaoud, after initially wavering, sided with ISIS as all-out war overtook the relations between ISIS and Nusra in early 2014, and seems to have been a founding member of Katibat al-Battar, an elite unit mostly run by Libyans, but which had a significant Belgian contingent. Abaaoud was later a military emir in Deir Ezzor. Emwazi was a part of ISIS’s Amn ad-Dawla (State Security). In short, Abaaoud and Emwazi actually had military usefulness as individuals, rather than as expendable suicide bombers or cannon fodder.
With ISIS’s wilayats and the increasing reach of its foreign terrorist activity, the argument that it is contained is going to be much harder to make in the coming weeks. The short-term reaction might well be, as after Muaz al-Kasasbeh was burned alive and the Paris attacks, a show of force. But that will subside.
For Europe, unless radical policy change is in the offing, this is the new normal. The United States, protected by the oceans and a better history of assimilation, can only be attacked by ISIS with external plots or by citizens who have been inspired by ISIS, giving security forces many more points of vulnerability to work with and imposing more stringent limits on terrorists’ capabilities. Europe is facing something more like low-level guerrilla warfare.
The epicenter for this crisis is Syria, a disaster that has burst its borders. As people flee the devastation, it is changing Europe, too. The migratory flows are strengthening Europe’s darkest impulses, which these days also happen to be aligned with the Kremlin. This is putting a strain on the Atlantic Alliance and the chain reaction of radicalization is then set in place as nativist far-Right demagogues push Muslims even further out of the mainstream, ratifying ISIS’s narrative that Muslims have to choose between persecution in the West or protection in the caliphate.
The obvious conclusion is that ISIS in its heartland should be defeated, which means ending the Syrian war. Europe will still have an internal terrorism problem, but it will be more manageable. Europe cannot deal with ISIS solely as an internal security matter because while the caliphate remains, it is inspiring and directing too many people for European security services to cope with. There is no “war of ideas” shortcut, either, to halt the flow of Europeans to ISIS’s banner: military defeat is what will defeat ISIS’s appeal.
When it comes to how to defeat ISIS, we are likely to see, as we did after Paris, commentary suggesting a partnership with Assad and Putin.
Assad’s No Ally Against Terrorism
It is important that partnering with Assad be seen as the single most counter-productive thing that the West could do if it wants to defeat ISIS. Empowering local Sunni communities is the only sustainable way to destroy the caliphate; siding with a regime responsible for ninety-five percent of the civilian casualties, using tactics that amount to extermination, is the surest way to have those Sunnis who would be our allies look at ISIS as the lesser-evil.
But there is another reason why siding with Assad to defeat ISIS makes no sense: there is no government in the world as responsible for ISIS’s rise as Assad’s.
During the US presence in Iraq, foreign fighters were funneled to ISIS’s predecessor by Assad’s military intelligence service, which began this collaboration with jihadis before the Iraq invasion. As Charles Lister recently put it, “Without help from Damascus [to ISIS] … dozens if not hundreds of US soldiers would still be alive today.” If not for Assad’s help after the Awakening and the Surge, ISIS might no longer even exist.
When the uprising began against Assad, he released hundreds of jihadist prisoners, including Al-Absi, to try to switch the narrative away from reform and toward sectarianism. Assad then deliberately inflamed sectarian passions and endangered minority communities so they would rally around the regime and he could pose as their defender. It is a matter of simple military fact that Assad barely engaged ISIS during its critical growth period, while hammering the opposition with airstrikes. When the rebels fought ISIS, Assad bombed the rebels. Since Russia’s intervention the same tactics have been adopted, leading to ISIS gains against the rebels. Assad has collaborated with ISIS in Syria’s energy market, transferring millions of dollars to the terrorist group, and Russia has been a key facilitator of that.
Pro-Assad forces—overwhelmingly composed of foreign, Iranian-controlled Shiite jihadists—backed by devastating Russian airstrikes, are currently moving on ISIS-controlled Palmyra. If the pro-Assad forces take Palmyra this will be held up as evidence that the regime is on the front line against barbarism and thus an ally in what we once called the “War on Terror”. Put aside that the regime has no power to extend beyond Palmyra: this isn’t a first step toward “liberating” Raqqa; this is the regime at full stretch trying to score international political points. The notion that Assad is a counter-terrorism partner means ignoring mountains of evidence that terrorism has been the central instrument of the Assad regime’s foreign policy.
Assad’s cynical policy, first of using ISIS against western troops and then empowering ISIS to cannibalize the rebellion and face Syria’s population and the world with a binary choice of the dictatorship or a terrorist takeover of Syria has brought us to this point and spawned a monster that might eventually consume him too—but only after Assad and ISIS worked in tandem to eliminate all the other options. For now Assad still needs ISIS: ISIS’s existence is Assad’s only chance of survival.
Post has been corrected regarding the composition of foreigners in Batirashvili’s group and the profile of Abu Ali al-Anbari.