ISIS, ISIL (al-Sham), or as they refer to themselves, the Islamic State has continued to shock the world after a recent series of barbaric and catastrophic acts of terror. The French Government has now pledged to refer to the organization as ‘Daesh’, invalidating any relation to the religion of Islam or a state. The shift in language used by the French Government displays a shift in policy as a reaction to the recent Paris attacks.
Much to the fulfillment of the perpetrators, the devastation was widespread. The reach has become increasingly clear-the reach of ISIL goes far beyond Iraq, Syria and even the Levant.
The bombing of the Russian civilian airliner, the suicide bombings in Beirut and the recent string of bloodbaths in Central Paris have left a sense of fear and uncertainty. Questions are flowing as the world attempts to answer how such atrocities occurred. Why Paris? Why now? And perhaps the most striking question, what is next?
The West Is Bigger Than You Think: Western Europe vs. The United States
In one sense, the so-called Islamic State has been able to succeed in achieving a fragment of their goals: spreading fear and creating rifts in societies. While the attacks in Paris have made clear ISIL will not be held back by geographic boundaries, it is essential to understand ISIL’s immediate goals in the Middle East.
The main desire of ISIL is and has always been the establishment of a caliphate; a distorted attempt to breathe life to the Salafist goals of returning to the days of early Islam. Unlike Al-Qaeda under bin Laden whose main goal focused on the destruction of ‘the West’, ISIL was initially seen as a threat to the immediate surrounding areas. ISIL has waged war against sectarian governments and Shi’ite regimes notably the Iraqi Shi’a, Hezbollah and the Kurds.
Recent videos threatening Washington, D.C. and New York City have only contributed to the media frenzy of the threat of terrorism. Is the threat of terror after the attacks in Paris that much higher in the United States than it already was? The reality is while the threat is indeed very real and present, there has been a lack of acknowledgment about the critical differences between Europe and the United States.
While the United States and Europe share many similarities, the threat level must also ackowledge differences between the two regions. Countries such as Belgium and France have historically had a difficult time integrating Muslim communities. The failure to integrate cannot be viewed independently from the issues France and countries in Western Europe are facing.
The failure of Western Europe to integrate Muslim communities does not diminish the United States’ own integration issues. The United States suffered from an inability to provide a strong counter narrative following the 9/11 attacks. Prejudices and hate crimes are very much a reality in the United States as they are in many places throughout the globe.
However, the socio-economic background of Muslims is vastly different between Europe and the United States. Europe contains a more sizable population of young lower socioeconomic classes of Muslim communities. The United States statistically has a more educated and upper class Muslim population. The fragile socio-economic situation in countries such as France contributes to the rise of terrorist groups in these communities. Groups such as ISIL take advantage of lack of education and employment opportunities coupled with societal divides.
France has been subject to criticism for its controversial stances on combatting the threat of Islamic fundamentalist groups, notably Al-Qaeda and now the Islamic State. French President François Hollande has taken increasingly intrusive steps in anti-terrorist programs. The programs will only continue to be a source of contention in France in the wake of the recent attacks.
France, like many countries, has long standing terrorist infrastructures. Following 9/11, France adopted contentious immigration policies, which furthered rifts between the Muslim communities and French government. While France attempted to readjust its policies, the country has been unsuccessful. ISIL seized the opportunity to capitalize on pre existing anti-French sentiment present in ostracized Muslim immigrant populations living in France.
The attacks in Paris were highly orchestrated and reflect the intricacy of the network itself. France and Belgium have led raids against ISIL safe houses in suburban neighborhoods. The raids have killed the suspected ringleader of the attacks Adelhamid Abaaoud, a radicalized Belgium militant. Other suspects are still unaccounted for and still likely to be in the European Union.
Has ISIL Strategy Changed?
It is difficult to say whether ISIL strategy has intentionally shifted or if the external factors have forced the shift. Paris is not the first attack on a major international city by a terrorist organization. Madrid, London, Bali, Nigeria, Mumbai among many others have all fallen victim to grave tragedy following 9/11.
Yes, terrorist attacks thrive on the element of surprise. Yet, there are clear shortcomings of the international intelligence communities and governments to understand the vastness of the threat revealed in the Paris attacks. As displayed in the incidents with Russia and in Lebanon, the threat of ISIL outside of the Middle East is not exclusive to the Western world.
While the risk of an attack is present in the United States, Europe faces a unique geographic challenge. The planning of the Paris attack was global, with trails in Syria, Belgium and Paris. France, Britain, Belgium, and Germany have substantially larger numbers of citizens trained in Syria by ISIL that return home than the United States. While Western intelligence is aware of the threat, the re-entry into the West poses a tremendous security challenge. The geographic closeness allows for an inflow of foreign fighters, weapons and in turn ideology.
A more fluid intelligence sharing policy between the United States and Western European allies should be exercised in order to contribute to a more secure global community. The increase of intelligence budgets in Western Europe will likely become a larger part of the political discussion. The intelligence budget of countries such as Belgium, Germany and France are mere fragments of the United States intelligence expenses. Since 9/11, the United States spends nearly $47 billion a year on homeland security.
The humanitarian crisis and political chaos in Syria have only worsened already existing tensions on which ISIL finds its vitality. ISIL has exploited the humanitarian disaster. The political discussion in the United States of forbidding Syrian refugees to enter countries is fueled not by facts, but by fear. This repulsive exploitation is an attempt to aggravate ongoing tensions between the refugee populations and host countries.
While the air and ground raids in Syria may be successful in removing key leadership and crippling the trade routes, the problem is much larger. Prominent Muslim scholar, Sheikh Abudllah bin Bayyah condemned the Paris attacks. In his recent fatwa against the violent group he states, “The problem is that even if you defeat these ideas militarily by killing people, if you don’t defeat the ideas intellectually, then the ideas will reemerge.”
With the escalation of the coalition air strikes, the threat level has inevitably risen. The involvement of Western actors, Arab nations (notably Saudi Arabia), Turkey, Russia and Iran have all threatened the vitality of the ISIL. The foreign involvement in Syria and Iraq very well threatens the group’s intended expansion. While the involvement may initially hinder the expansion of ISIL, the group has continued to show persistence in achieving their goals of an expansion of territory and terror. Perhaps the organization has continued their original strategy yet the international involvement has fostered an international battlefield.