Chaos, The Legacy of Daesh: Observations after Brussels

April 5, 2016
Chaos, The Legacy of Daesh: Observations after Brussels
Scott Englund
Scott Englund Non-Resident Fellow, Counter-terrorism

Though the 22 March 2016 bombings in Brussels, Belgium captured the attention of Western Europe and the United States, Daesh (the Islamic State, ISIS/ISIL) has been responsible for killing scores recently in Turkey and hundreds in Baghdad.  These recent terror attacks against relatively soft targets challenges a developing consensus that Daesh has been seriously weakened in Iraq and Syria and it may be on the downward slope of its existence there.  Simply by measuring the territory it controls now, compared to the height of its existence in the Summer of 2014, Daesh has lost ground.  Through other measures, it appears to have lost the initiative it once had; defections have increased and key members of its leadership have been killed or captured.  That said, parades and celebrations over the demise of Daesh are premature.  According to one theory, the recent acts of terrorism that capture attention can be understood as the spasms of Daesh in decline.  As Daesh loses ground, and suffers from defections within, it will turn to one-off spectacular attacks to shore up its image as the vanguard of the army of the true caliphate.  In turn, these individual attacks may then inspire the so-called “lone wolf” attacks that are not planned or logistically supported by Daesh.

The inevitable end of Daesh will be violent and what it leaves behind will be ruins.  The chaos sewn by Daesh through its cruel administration and the residue it leaves behind will challenge the political and social landscape in Iraq and Syria, the wider Middle East region, and beyond to Europe.  The Brussels attacks should bring to mind three key conclusions: first, this is not the first time Daesh has done this, and it is not the last time they will; second, counter-terrorism is driven by timely, accurate, and actionable intelligence; and finally, international borders matter little in preventing these sorts of terrorist attacks.

Chaos is Victory Enough

The Brussels attacks are not new, nor even among the most lethal, of Daesh’s international terrorism effort.  Recall that in October-November 2015, in the span of less that two weeks, Daesh operatives detonated a bomb in a café in Beirut, brought down a Russian commercial aircraft, and murdered 130 in Paris.  More recently in Turkey, Daesh has claimed responsibility for suicide bombings in Istanbul, killing European tourists, and last summer Daesh killed dozens of Turkish volunteers preparing to help rebuild the Syrian town of Kobane.  The thirty-one dead in Brussels, though tragic, represent the most recent casualties in a line of victims, and they will not be the last.

Even as Daesh could lose its self-styled caliphate, it could win one of its key objectives: sewing chaos wherever they are not able to enforce their radical interpretation of Islam.  The text, The Management of Savagery, written in 2004 by Abu Naji Bakr has served as a guide for waging jihad as violently as Daesh has, namely that extraordinary times require extraordinary measures.  According to Bakr, savage violence is spiritually cleansing, and in fact merciul,

“Some may be surprised when we say that the religious practice of jihad despite the blood, corpses, and limbs which encompass it and the killing and fighting which its practice entails is among the most blessed acts of worship for the servants… Jihad is the most merciful of the methods for all created things and the most sparing of the spilling of blood.”

Such violence is also necessary to force ordinary Muslims to fight,

“Dragging the masses into the battle requires more actions which will inflame opposition and which will make the people enter into the battle, willing or unwilling, such that each individual will go to the side which he supports. We must make this battle very violent, such that death is a heartbeat away”

Finally, spectacularly violent acts spread fear and keep their enemies off balance.

“The policy of ‘paying the price’ in this situation will deter the enemy and make him think one thousand times before attacking regions managed by a regime of the administration of savagery because he knows that he will pay the price (for doing so), even if (the retribution) comes later.”

The Brussels terrorist attack must be understood in context: this act of violence against vulnerable civilians is neither random nor is it desperate, it is part of a larger campaign of violence.  Even in this context, terrorist violence is exceedingly rare in most of the world.

Intelligence Leads

The November Paris attacks and the March 22 attacks in Belgium revealed some deficiencies in counter-terrorism intelligence in Europe.  Glaringly, in spite of being one of Europe’s most wanted men, sought for his role in planning the Paris attack, Salah Abdeslam lived openly in Belgium for several months before being captured just days before bombs ripped through the Brussels airport and transit system.  Perhaps worse, in spite of the fact that European law enforcement officials assured the public that Abdeslam was an intelligence “goldmine” on how Daesh operates in Europe, he had apparently planned additional attacks, and the execution of the 22 March attacks was clearly underway.  Hind-sight criticisms of not seeing a threat developing are popular immediately after a crisis.  However, the threat posed by radicalized Muslim youth in Belgium had been studied for at least a decade; isolation, high unemployment, lack of educational and training opportunities contributed to the environment that encourages radical extremism in Belgium.

Intelligence leads counter-terrorism efforts.  By their nature, terrorist organizations operate clandestinely among an otherwise peaceful, law-abiding citizenry.  In fact, the peaceful, law-abiding citizenry is the target of their nefarious operations.  This makes operating against them more like law-enforcement.  However, terrorism is the combination of secrecy, lethality, and rapid deployment of the final act of violence.  This makes countering terrorism also like a military operation.  Evading an attack (or a criminal act) requires advance warning.  This leans heavily on intelligence.  Intelligence is the collection, processing, analysis, and dissemination of information that aids decision-making.  The majority of intelligence gathering is done “open source,” that is, through publicly available sources.  However, a significant amount must be collected “clandestinely,” meaning that collectors necessarily steal other people’s secrets for use against them.  Terrorist organizations are typically small and highly insular.  When embedded in an already tight, culturally isolated community, as is found in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels, terror groups are notoriously difficult to collect against.  Counter-terrorism intelligence relies heavily on human intelligence (information gathered from people familiar with or are members of the targeted group), and electronic intelligence (information collected from telephonic and other kinds of electronic communication).  As the former becomes more difficult, the latter takes up a greater share of the burden.  Nearly all of the current United States Presidential candidates have called for greater intelligence gathering, to include greater electronic surveillance in the United States and elsewhere.

Borders Offer False Security

International borders offer a false sense of security.  In the over-heated United States Presidential Campaign (the longest in history), a predictable reaction from some candidates is to call for closing borders.  Similarly, these calls have been heard in Western Europe, both to wall off the European Union (EU), and to restrict passage between EU member nations.  However, the Paris and Brussels attacks should serve to highlight the fact that in Europe terrorism can be largely home-grown.  Recall that almost a dozen years ago in London, where the English channel may offer some additional separation, the four men responsible for killing fifty-two and injuring over 700 were British citizens and their terrorist operation was entirely home-grown.  In the United States, recent “lone-wolf” attacks were carried out by citizens who were raised in, or lived a significant amount of time among, the communities in which they carried out their attacks.  In Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, the effects of war have made international borders between these three sovereign states porous; this makes it possible to locate the planning and preparation for an attack on one side of a border, but to then execute that plan on the other.  As a result, Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan are at high risk for terror attacks originating in Iraq and Syria, but given the relatively simple technology required to carry out a suicide bombing or small-arms assault, these states are also at risk of their own “home-grown” terrorism.

Calling to close borders is therefore a political shell game: calling attention to an obvious, simple, but ineffective measure in order to cover over the fact that truly effective measures are harder to come-by.  To be sure, the movement across borders can facilitate all kinds of nefarious activity, and it is reasonable to expect some increase in scrutiny.  However, the idea that a country the size of the United States could ever close its borders to “Muslims” is as ridiculous as it is insulting.  The greater task is to find potentially violent people already operating in free societies that place a premium on individual liberty and privacy.  This is the marriage between conducting intelligence operations at the intensity of a military action and traditional law-enforcement techniques of knowing the neighborhoods in which one operates, and respecting the rule of law.  Similarly, instead of simply closing off borders to refugees, capable states should work to reduce the factors that drive the refugee crisis.  In the interim, greater scrutiny should be expected, but is only one element in a long-term, effective counter-terror policy.

Living with Terror

As has been written in this space before, the likelihood of being killed in a terrorist attack is very remote for those living outside active conflict zones.  So, for most of the world, terrorist acts almost never happen.  This is why, when it does, it captures attention.  However tragic individual deaths are in terrorist violence, and however terrorism motivates survivors to wish to do “something” out of vengeance or to prevent something like it from happening again, often times a hasty over-reaction is precisely what the terrorists sought with their violence.  Recall the quote from The Management of Savagery, “dragging the masses into the battle requires more actions which will inflame opposition and which will make the people enter into the battle” [emphasis added].  A measured response to a terrorist attack means 1.) placing it in the context of a long conflict, 2.) relying on intelligence to detect and disrupt attacks as they are planned, and 3.) acknowledging the vulnerability inherent in open societies.  Individually, people can prepare and make themselves less vulnerable to terrorist violence.  Practically speaking, this means being aware of one’s surroundings, identifying clear escape routes, and being ready to respond if things require immediate action.  Finally, the essence of modern terrorism is politics, so understanding the political context in which it has grown and occurs is also necessary for those confronted by terrorist violence.  Dismantling terrorism by placing it in its practical and political context and making reasonable preparations for it, makes terrorism less random, less ominous, and properly situates the threat it poses.