March 23, 2016

March 23, 2016 | Commentary on Terrorism

Why Brussels?

Following Tuesday’s attacks in Brussels, a German Green MP raised a basic question: “Why do they hate us so much?”

We’ve seen attacks in New York, Washington, Madrid, London, Paris, Copenhagen and Brussels – to name just some of the Western cities blighted by terrorism. After all that, it seems remarkable that this is still being asked. But since it is, it is worth answering.

Some offer a simple answer: foreign policy. Be it Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria, there is always some foreign conflict and always those eager to blame it on the West – especially the U.S. The response is always the same, regardless of whether the U.S. intervenes militarily (Afghanistan, Iraq) or whether it chooses not to (Bosnia, Syria).

This narrative was punctured somewhat in December 2010 when a suicide attack took place in Sweden – hardly a country known for its imperial ambitions. Now that narrative truly lies in tatters.

Sleepy Belgium has been targeted by the Islamic State group for the third time in two years. The first came in May 2014, with Mehdi Nemmouche’s attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels, causing four casualties. Then, in January 2015, Belgian police broke up an Islamic State group cell operating in Verviers, eastern Belgium. With Islamic State group or ISIS-inspired cells also being exposed up in European countries as diverse and innocuous as Denmark, Italy and Spain, the foreign policy line is unsustainable.

So, if not foreign policy, then what? Normally the cliche rolled out is poverty. It is certainly true that Molenbeek, the base for so many jihadists aspiring to attack Europe these days, is a particularly impoverished area. It is heavily populated by immigrants, many of whom likely feel detached from broader European society. Doubtless many there also feel deprived of economic opportunity. Yet millions around the world are in similar circumstances, with similar feelings, and they do not respond by beheading journalists or gunning down civilians in cafes.

Instead, the animating factor behind these attacks is the existence of a pernicious yet all-encompassing ideology that legitimizes acts of violence in a garb of religiosity and is after new recruits.

These latest attacks should be understood in these terms. The Islamic State group wants to rally Muslims living in Europe to its cause. In order to do so, it aspires to provide them with moments of “clarity,” one which offers a simple, stark, Manichean choice: You are with us or against us.

For those who choose the former, there is a quasi-functioning state in Iraq and Syria that will provide you with refuge. Choose the latter, you are dismissed as “not a true Muslim.”

In addition to rallying the faithful, the attack sends a message to the West. At the most base level, the message is “Fear us.” After all, the goal of terrorism is to instill terror. But it is also meant to dispel any perception that the Islamic State group was on the defensive. Tuesday’s bombings were designed to show that, despite recent reversals in Syria and Iraq and despite the arrest of key operatives, the group can carry out major strikes in Europe at will. This defies optimistic intelligence assessments that the days of large terrorist cells pulling off complex bomb-making plots were over.

There is a follow-on question from this that is worth asking, however. Why Belgium specifically? True, it had a very small military role in the military coalition in Syria and Iraq. But even that modest involvement ended last July. Unlike France or the U.K., Belgium is not a major player in the anti-Islamic State group coalition. Furthermore, there would appear to be very little logical sense to striking in a country which has an entire district – in this case the suburb of Molenbeek – where your fighters can blend into the general population and use it as a base from which to carry out attacks with virtual impunity. Surely this will just lead to a massive increase in attention from the state.

There are possible explanations. Take the Verviers plot, which was being planned by Belgians. The conspirators wished to strike against the country they had grown to despise, the country which they intended to leave in order to fight in Syria. It appears as though they planned to target the police – an institution symbolic of supposed state repression against Muslims.

However, the most convincing explanation is perhaps the simplest. Events in Brussels represent an attack on shared values of freedom, liberty and tolerance – the values that Europe aspires to epitomize. They are the antithesis of the values offered by the Caliphate. They are also the reason why they hate us.

- Robin Simcox is a research fellow in The Thatcher Center for Freedom.

- This piece originally appeared on U.S. News and World Report.


About the Author

Robin Simcox Margaret Thatcher Fellow
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: Terrorism

This piece originally appeared on U.S. News and World Report