The Skeptics

Does ISIS Even Have a European Strategy?

With the bombers dead and investigations just a week old, the motives behind last week’s bombings in Brussels’ airport and metro will remain murky for some time. Of course, reporters and terrorism analysts have offered lots of speculation, much of it focused on how the attacks serve the agenda of ISIS’s leaders. That approach, I believe, overstates ISIS’s coherence and wisdom. If “ISIS” means the would-be state in Syria in Iraq, plus affiliated groups and clandestine networks of sympathizers, then it doesn’t have a strategy; it has strategies, often foolish ones.

Statements claiming responsibility for the attack, attributed to ISIS’s leadership in Syria, blame Belgium for joining in the war in Syria and Iraq and threaten coalition members with similar treatment. The attack, in other words, was meant to coerce foreign powers to quit making war on ISIS.

Those statements are indications that ISIS’s leaders didn’t know the particulars of the attack in advance, let alone direct it. Like some prior ISIS’s claims of responsibility for attacks, the statements seem to crib from media reports; they arrived hours after attacks without any detail unavailable in public. By claiming that the airport attackers “opened fire” with “automatic rifles,” the statements even repeat errors in initial reporting.

Those statements also offer a flawed theory of victory. Terrorism tends to provoke nationalistic anger, unifying victimized nations against attackers rather than acquiescence to their demands. Even if they missed that historical lesson, ISIS’s leaders should have noticed that their murders of innocents energized the coalition targeting them. In the wake of attacks, Belgium predictably reaffirmed plans to resume participation in the bombing campaign in Iraq.

Many terrorism analysts respond to the illogic of ISIS’ stated strategy by assuming that it masks a better one. A popular alternative argues that ISIS, having suffered territorial reverses in Iraq and Syria, decided to attack abroad, targeting a city already on alert, to show capability, rebuild the brand, or attract new recruits.