Notwithstanding all of the commentary to the contrary, the Iraqi army assisted by U.S. Special Forces is putting the Islamic State on the defensive in Iraq. In fact, the Iraqi army is poised to retake the northern province of Nineveh and may soon gain control of Mosul, the province’s largest city and a militant stronghold. This is the good news, but it is not the whole story.
Up until recently the goal of ISIS was to acquire and hold territory, to build a Caliphate under a state structure. However, with that state structure in disarray, the strategy has changed and with it, the potential terrorist danger has increased. It is now the case that ISIS has involved adherents in the spread of its extremist ideas and encouraging acolytes to attack wherever they might be.
The message from the Brussels’ murders reinforces the warning from Paris – four months earlier – that the Islamic State not only has the capability of deadly terrorist attacks in the heart of Europe, but that these attacks are part and parcel of a revised strategic vision.
From outposts remaining in Iraq and, most significantly, in Syria, ISIS can use refugee flows into Europe as a method for embedding terrorist cells. Moreover, these terrorist “sleepers” can easily find “safe houses” in sanctuary neighborhoods like Molenbeek in Brussels. It is estimated that about 5,000 Europeans have travelled to Iraq and Syria to train and several hundred have since returned.
As the Iraqi army moves successfully through the territory once controlled by ISIS, the recruitment effort will decline. Nevertheless, hundreds of terrorists are in place for missions abroad. These are the lone wolves – hard to detect and deadly, but operating on a relatively small scale. It is not even clear that these operatives are directed by ISIS officials, since operational details are generally left to terrorist cells. Rather than pursue attacks on a grand scale, like the al Qaeda 9/11 invasion which was designed to shake the foundations of the political order, ISIS attacks are designed to inspire fear and anxiety. These incidents have propaganda value. The presumption is ISIS can attack anywhere and at any time.
If a spectacular attack is not in the Islamic State playbook, it is likely that series of attacks endangering hundreds at a time may be in the offing posing a greater danger than the events surrounding 9/11. Europe is in the cross hairs. The Muslim safe havens in every major city together with the hundreds of operatives already ensconced makes it likely there will be further strikes of the kind seen in the Brussels airport and underground system.
Governments throughout the continent will be more responsive than the rather lax intelligence operation in Belgium. But anti-terrorist activity requires time and coordination. Despite the alarm bells set off by the 34 killed in Brussels, the threat is growing faster than the ability of officials to keep pace. And coincidently, the success of Iraqi and U.S. forces in Iraq have forced the miasmic terrorist threat to spread its deadly goals in Europe and across North Africa.