I was originally going to write about the Russian withdrawal from Syria, but then I woke up to the horrific news out of Brussels. Therefore, the Russia post will be delayed. I am still sifting through all the articles and reports being released. Nevertheless, here are a few thoughts.
First, terrorism is a tool of the weak. ISIS is not powerful enough to pose an existential threat to the U.S. or NATO, so it utilizes asymmetric attacks to exploit psychological biases and generate crippling fear. The odds of anyone getting killed by a terrorist attack are vanishingly small, but just the thought of innocents being mindlessly gunned down is so horrific that it notably changes people’s behavior. I think part of the reason ISIS has increased its attacks on Europe is that it has grown weaker in Iraq and Syria. ISIS has been losing territory at a fast pace (at least in its home region) and its foreign affiliates are only loyal because ISIS is perceived as strong. If ISIS continues to lose ground, it is likely that many groups like Al Shabab will renounce their alliance with ISIS and return to acting as an autonomous group. The continued decline of ISIS’s power base is a major reason for why ISIS continues to escalate its attacks outside of the Middle East. In short, they want to increase their brand name and draw attention away from their continued territorial losses. Unfortunately, the more ground ISIS loses, the more terrorism we can expect to observe in Europe.
Second, I think this might motivate Europe to increase defense and security spending. For a while, Europe has been effectively free-riding on a strong U.S. and a peaceful world. While European countries have started to re-militarize in the wake of the Crimea annexation and the Paris attacks, I think the pace of military buildup will likely increase significantly. Moreover, I expect more European contributions to combating Islamic extremism in both the Middle East and in Europe. There are powerful pressures in Europe against interventionism, especially after the Iraq War debacle. Nevertheless, the increasing number of attacks (Paris, Berlin, Brussels) will make intervention much more palatable.
Third, expect the Schengen Agreement to come under further strain and possibly collapse. What makes Europe so vulnerable to terrorism is that there are essentially no border controls within the continent. Thus, if extremist elements are able to smuggle bombs/weapons through the Balkans, they can strike almost anywhere in Europe. As European electorates have become more and more resistant to unrestricted refugee flows, the increasing number of terror attacks might just be the straw that breaks Schengen’s back. Of course, it’s also possible that instead of ending the Schengen zone, this attack will generate a multinational effort to police and secure Europe’s Balkan border with troops from France, Germany, and other major European powers. Regardless of what happens, it is clear that there will be changes.
Fourth, expect that the pro-Brexit forces in Britain use the attack to bolster their argument for leaving the EU. Britain is not a member of the Schengen Zone and is also better positioned to defend its borders (it being an island) than most European countries. Thus, the threat of Brussels-style attacks in the UK is remote. Nevertheless, I have learned to never underestimate politicians’ exploitations of tragedies. After all, just look at Ted Cruz.
I would just close by saying that we are fighting to defend two things in the West: our safety and our values. Fear and hatred risk everything we have worked so hard to achieve. Western culture is so great because it is not as backward and perverse as the Islamic extremists we are fighting. Don’t let Brussels or Paris or San Bernadino be used to undermine the gains we have made as a society. I know Trump has already called for allowing unrestricted use of torture in the wake of the attack, and I’m sure many far-right European parties will argue for similarly harsh (though less absurd) solutions to the growing challenge of terror. As the Economist explains, “IS bases its terrorism on a vicious calculation. It believes that successful attacks will inspire the would-be Muslim radicals that it is trying to recruit. But it also wants to provoke a backlash in order to convince those same radicals that the world despises them and their religion.” We cannot allow our just outrage to fuel ISIS. We cannot fall into their trap.