Counter-terrorism experts are warning that militants affiliated with the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, are shifting their battleground from the territory it holds in Iraq and Syria to European countries, in the wake of an ISIS-claimed triple bombing that left more than 30 people dead in Brussels on Monday. Some who follow ISIS’ activities were surprised by how unprepared Belgian officials were for such an attack, given that Brussels has been called the “ground zero” of Islamist militancy on the continent.
Belgian officials had reason to suspect that an attack was very possible. Numerous U.S. and European officials in Brussels said that their security and intelligence teams had warned them of a possible attack over the weekend. The motive was said to be retaliation for the arrest of Salah Abdelslam — the suspected sole surviving assailant of the Paris attacks in November.
Abdelslam, a French citizen who has lived in Brussels, is believed to have carried out the gun attack on Paris’ Bataclan theater in November last week and led authorities to a stockpile of weapons — and a network of people who he’s helped recruit to ISIS’ ideology.
“He was ready to start something from Brussels,” Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders told officials on Sunday — days before mayhem broke out in the city’s main airport and a central subway station.
According to experts, Abdelslam’s arrest might have added urgency to the plans.
“It is hard to conceive that this would happen on such a large scale when it was so obvious that these guys were operating there,” Watts said of ISIS. “After [Abdeslam’s] arrest, you would have to assume everyone in the network was preparing to launch whatever they had,” Clint Watts, a former FBI and U.S. Army counter-terrorism official and expert ISIS, told NBC News.
Mubin Shaikh, a Canadian terrorism expert, echoed the theory that Abdelslam’s capture put Islamist militants on the offensive.
“They were compromised because that guy got caught, and he was singing like a canary,” Shaikh told the Daily Beast. “Those people realized [that] it’s now or never.”
Such attacks are a major tenet of ISIS’ villainous ideology. An article published the group’s propaganda magazine last year called for the destruction of the so-called “gray zone” between ISIS’ extremist rendition of Islam and outright “infidels.” Writings on the “gray zone” are required reading for ISIS’ political, military, and religious leaders, according to Scott Atran, who studies terrorist movements:
I suspect that ISIS is planning a coordinated attack across multiple cities in Europe to ramp up the process of extinguishing the gray zone, and to also shift the focus of its possible adherents away form its increasingly noteworthy military containment in Syria and Iraq.
Unlike Al Qaeda, whose attacks in Europe and elsewhere were largely instigated by inspiration rather than direct command and control, ISIS is now able to remotely command as well as inspire with the idea of a utopian Caliphate in the here and now (something [Osama] Bin Laden earnestly rejected as long as the U.S.A. was powerful enough to contain and thereby delegitimize it). It has infiltrated immigrant neighborhoods, ridden piggyback on refugee pipelines and tapped into the ennui of a Western society that hasn’t [know] war or real struggle over values for 70 years and the anomie of a seemingly endless, genderless, culturally indistinct adolescence.
A focus on European targets might also reveal ISIS’ efforts to save face after losing territory it held in the Middle East, especially since its ability to amass and hold land has been a key differentiating factor between it and other Islamist militant groups. According to U.S. military officials, ISIS has lost 40 percent of its territory in Iraq and 20 percent of its territory in Syria since the U.S.-led campaign began.
Attacks in Paris or Brussels — or, perhaps, eventually in London, which Islamic State leaders regularly threaten — enable the group’s leaders to claim they are taking the fight to their enemies.
“The Islamic State builds its image on success, and if it is failing militarily in Iraq and Syria it will need to win victories elsewhere,” Daniel Byman, a professor at Georgetown University and Middle East expert wrote in a New York Times op-ed.
“Attacks in Paris or Brussels — or, perhaps, eventually in London, which Islamic State leaders regularly threaten — enable the group’s leaders to claim they are taking the fight to their enemies,” he added.
And indeed, that battle front does appear to be shifting to Europe.
After the multi-pronged gun and bomb attacks on several popular locations across Paris, French President François Hollande hinted at a “war” with Islamist militants across Europe.
“We are at war against terrorism, terrorism which declared war on us,” he said in November. “It is the [Islamic State] jihadist organization. It has an army. […] It has allies in Europe, including in our country with young, radicalized Islamist people. It committed atrocities there and wants to kill here. It has killed here.”