FPI Bulletin: Brussels Attacks Demonstrate Global ISIS Threat

March 22, 2016

This morning’s attacks in Brussels serve as a stark reminder that terrorist safe havens in Syria and Iraq represent a direct threat to the security of Europe and the United States. Though individual perpetrators have not yet been identified, the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) quickly claimed responsibility for this morning’s attacks. The threat from ISIS will only worsen unless the United States and its allies take decisive action to defeat the group worldwide.

Intelligence collected after the Paris attacks in November demonstrates how safe havens abroad are fueling terrorism in Europe.  A video released by the Islamic State in January showed that atrocity was “carried out by core members of the terrorist group, who had been trained and vetted in Syria before being tapped to carry out attacks on European soil.”

The Paris cell and its support system in Belgium benefited greatly from a pipeline by which foreign fighters were sent to Syria and Iraq to be trained, then sent back to wreak havoc against the West. As the Wall Street Journal reports, “The network shuttled radicalized Muslims from Belgium to Syria beginning in January 2013, according to court documents, and many of those ultimately trained and fought with Islamic State forces in Syria.” Paris attack ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud and gunman Chakib Akrouh were among thirty people convicted in Belgium last year, many in absentia, of belonging to this network.

Based upon these developments, French officials had already concluded that the Islamic State was building the infrastructure to support a sustained wave of attacks. Paris has repeatedly warned that its intelligence services simply “cannot track all the Europeans traveling to and from Islamic State strongholds in Syria and Iraq.” Similarly, a Belgian counterterrorism official warned in an interview last week that his government lacks “the infrastructure to properly investigate or monitor hundreds of individuals suspected of terror links, as well as pursue the hundreds of open files and investigations we have.”

The Paris-Brussels network may only be the tip of the iceberg.  The U.S. intelligence community’s 2016 Worldwide Threat Assessment found that at least 6,600 fighters from Western countries have traveled to Syria since the conflict began. Homeland security and law enforcement officials have been warning of this threat for years.  Indeed, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson pointedly said in February 2014 that “Syria has become a matter of homeland security.”

Two years ago, President Obama set the right objective when he said it was imperative “to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL.” Yet he also expressed his belief, just hours before the Paris attacks, that ISIS had been contained. After the attacks, even former members of the Obama cabinet, such as Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta, were calling on the White House to pursue a more aggressive and vigorous approach.

According to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, President Obama has set the goal of defeating ISIS before his term ends. “That's what he said he wants. That's what he told me and [General Dunford],” Carter said, “Get this done as soon as possible. I'd like to not leave this to my successor.”  If that is what the President wants, then he will need a new strategy.

In Iraq, the United States will have to send special operators to embed with front-line Iraqi battalions and coordinate U.S. airstrikes against ISIS, accelerate the reconstruction of the Iraqi Security Forces, and support Prime Minister Abadi in his effort to reduce sectarian influence over his government. In Syria, the United States should establish safe zones along the country’s borders to protect civilians while giving moderate opposition fighters the weapons they need to defend themselves. The administration will also need to correct its indecisive approach toward the emerging ISIS stronghold in Libya.

Today’s attacks in Brussels, like those in Paris, also serve as a potent reminder of the persistent value of the transatlantic alliance.  This point is particularly important in light of President Obama’s recent criticism of our European allies as “free riders” and Donald Trump’s claim yesterday that “NATO is costing us a fortune” without providing much in return. The truth is that the United States and our European allies face common foes, and by pooling our resources—military, intelligence, law enforcement, and political—we can achieve greater things than we can separately.

The only way forward against ISIS is for both the United States and Europe to intensify their respective efforts, which are not yet commensurate to the threat.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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