The bombs that exploded in the Brussels airport and at a central metro station on Tuesday morning, killing at least 30 people, came as only the latest in a string of terrorist outrages on a continent that is starting to see horrific violence as the new normal. Hours later the Islamic State claimed responsibility.
This carnage must be seen in context: The United States and its Western allies are hitting the Islamic State hard in its bases in Iraq and Syria. The jihadist group may finally be on the defensive. But meantime, it is lashing out, taking its fight — and its struggle for supremacy among jihadists — global. Europe has emerged as a key battleground.
Working with Western and Iraqi partners, American forces have pushed back the Islamic State. The group has lost an estimated 40 percent of its territory in Iraq and 20 percent in Syria from its peak in the summer of 2014. Major cities like Ramadi have been reclaimed, and Mosul, the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Iraq, may be next. American military officials say that the group has lost more than ten thousand fighters.
These losses hurt the Islamic State twice over. The control of territory and the establishment of a “caliphate” is one of the big differences between the Islamic State and jihadist organizations that have preceded it. Qaeda leaders have long opposed such a move, arguing that it is premature, even foolhardy. The Islamic State, however, has gained legitimacy and popularity among radical Muslims by creating a “state” where they can live under their interpretation of Islamic law. Losing territory is a blow to its ambitions and legitimacy.
Even worse, military defeat damages its image. The Islamic State’s propaganda and recruiting pitches portray the group as winners, building a utopia for the devout while defeating Islam’s foes. The distance between losing territory and being a loser is not too great. The Islamic State cannot afford this as it competes with Al Qaeda for jihadists’ hearts and minds. When terrorist groups are stalled militarily and fear losing ground to rivals, they often try to attract recruits and funds through spectacular violence.
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. Days before the attacks in Brussels, an Islamic State-linked suicide bomber killed four people and wounded dozens in Istanbul. The group has also claimed responsibility for attacks in Lebanon and in Egypt. It has established “provinces” of varying degrees of strength on the Sinai Peninsula and in Yemen and other Muslim countries.
But Europe is an especially important theater. 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.
More than 5,000 Europeans have gone to fight in Syria, and France and Belgium contribute a disproportionate number of these fighters. Some returnees try to link up with locals, and the cycle of violence is becoming self-sustaining. The first volunteers were motivated primarily by adventure or out of a sense of defending their community, but now friends are recruiting friends, promising glory and God.
European security services are overwhelmed. Terrorists are free to cross Europe’s open borders, but security relationships are often far more confined. European security services often do not share lists of suspects and they do not have a common system for transliterating Arabic names. Even when they make progress, arrests and manhunts can lead to spikes in attacks, as other terrorists seek revenge or speed up their timetables because they feel the net is closing in. After the latest bombings, attention to terrorism will grow, as will the resources at security services’ disposal, but cooperation is likely to remain a problem.
The technical glitches can perhaps be solved, but Europe also faces another difficulty: Muslim integration. Across the Continent, Muslims often feel alienated from the broader population. Trust in the police and security services is particularly low. In the United States, many plots are disrupted because the American Muslim community reports them to the police and the F.B.I.; such trust is lacking in Europe.
The rise of far-right, xenophobic political forces, like the National Front in France or Alternative for Germany, will do little to improve relations between European Muslims and their governments. (More moderate conservatives feel the pinch, too: David Cameron, the prime minister of Britain, has promised to crack down on Muslim religious schools.) As chauvinistic voices become louder and societies less welcoming, Muslim communities feel more under siege. Islamic State recruiters welcome alienated people with open arms. They also know that new attacks empower the radical right in a vicious feedback loop.
Pushing back the Islamic State in the Middle East is necessary for long-term success, but in the short term we should expect the Islamic State to strike where it can. Unfortunately, the Western response in Iraq and Syria is much more promising than efforts to stop terrorism in Europe. Bombing the Islamic State’s leaders and forces in Iraq and Syria and building up a credible opposition there remain vital, but what is necessary to defeat — or, more realistically, weaken — the Islamic State and its supporters in Europe is even less straightforward and harder to achieve.
Daniel Byman, a professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, is the author of Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Global Jihadist Movement: What Everyone Needs to Know.