A lorry drives into civilians in France. A hijacked truck rams into a department store in Sweden. Airports are struck by blasts in Belgium, while a man goes on a shooting spree in Germany. The media is flooded with news of terror attacks and European societies face unprecedented insecurity over the growth of one infamous group, claiming responsibility for a majority of the attacks that have hit Europe over the past few years: the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, now known as the Islamic State. But why is Europe targeted so often?
Like almost every other phenomenon in the world today, terrorism has also developed a transnational dimension, making it increasingly easy for the terrorists to achieve their objective of terrorizing civilians, with the ultimate aim of coercing governments and the international political community into giving in to their demands. ISIL is the epitome of modern terrorism - its rampant use of social media to spread its messages and excessive use of brutality set it apart, to the extent that even Al Qaeda, its apparent parent organisation has severed ties with it. It targets a much broader group of civil society - “non-believers”, which also includes various sects of Islam which differ in ideology. Various terrorist organizations have pledged alliance to it because its message resonates with them. What also sets it apart from other terror groups is the significance it gives to the establishment of the ‘Caliphate’: no group in history has had it as a primary objective and thus, seizing control over territory is of utmost importance. This has only agitated the Syrian crisis – ISIS has used the political vacuum and chaos to its advantage, not just to establish training camps in Iraq and Syria, but also to recruit and develop a strong network. The group grew out of instability in Iraq, post-US occupation and the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and today, controls a little less than 7 percent of Syrian territory.
Now, ISIS is expanding its base in Europe as ground for recruitment, as well as terrorist attacks.
But why is Europe a target for ISIS? There is no simple answer to this question. But let’s begin with the much-criticized Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi cites it as a “conspiracy” which aimed at deciding the future of the people of the Middle East, without their consent; by dividing it into spheres of influence between the French and the British. Modern state borders were drawn based on the agreement and today, according to ISIS, “wars are being fought to preserve them”- this is seen as exploitation of Middle Eastern lands at the hands of European countries, a grievance ISIS has used to justify its attacks. The details of the agreement have contributed to the instability in Iraq and Syria - the former managed by Britain, the latter by France; both wracked by instability and coups until Hussein and Assad regimes were established. What followed was a political crisis in both countries, revolts against the regime and chaotic political vacuum and ultimately the creation of ISIS. Furthermore, the brief history preceding its formation, beginning with the 9/11 attacks in New York led to extreme profiling of Muslims, and the War on Terror. This created the “Us versus Them” dichotomy, and a hostile approach towards the US and its European allies.
There is no doubt that ISIS holds the US and Europe responsible for the miseries in the Middle East, especially in Iraq and Syria. Abu Ahmed al-Adnani of ISIS released an audio clip asking true believers to use all means available to them to carry out attacks against non-believers, especially in Europe and the USA, for the “smallest action you [‘true believers’] do in their heartland is better and more enduring to us [ISIS] than what you would, if you were with us”. What followed was a series of seemingly small scale attacks across Europe, some having been inspired by messages from ISIS leaders.
But the fear of terrorists often makes governments target the wrong enemy. The rise of terrorist attacks has not only seen a rise in populist propaganda in the West, such as Trump in the US, Le Pen in France, Wilders in the Netherlands and Hofer in Austria, but there has also been an increase in the anti-refugee and anti-Islam sentiment across Europe. In fact, a recent survey of more than 10,000 Europeans from more than 10 different European countries by Chatham House Royal Institute of International Affairs revealed high public opposition to immigration - especially immigration from Muslim majority countries. Populist governments rely on terror attacks as evidence to capitalize on anti-refugee and anti-Islam sentiments. This, in turn, helps ISIS recruit individuals who have been the target of repressive policies and discrimination. For example, recent attacks in Sweden were carried out by a young man of Uzbekistani origin, who was denied asylum in Sweden. Jihadist groups find opportunity for recruitment in European countries due to the states’ secularism “coupled with a sense of marginalization among immigrant communities”, according to a report from the Soufan Group, a major security firm based in New York. The report also says that “against this sense of alienation, the propaganda of the Islamic State offers an attractive alternative of belonging, purpose, adventure and respect." These are the people ISIS recruits - the marginalized and the radicalized. And the more they manage to ‘recruit’, the more repressive populist governments aim at becoming; thus widening the gap and making Europe an easier target for ISIS.
There’s too much at stake here. The notion of a Third World War does not seem unfathomable - only this time, the enemy is unlike states have ever seen. The content posted on social media by ISIS and other terrorist groups must be regulated and prevented from spreading. Political leaders as well as civilians need to identify the identity politics ISIS is using to expand its organization, aiming to create better integration programs for the refugees it provides asylum to, especially with the aim of reducing the radical profiling of refugees as outsiders, or “all Muslims” as terrorists. Because at the end of the day, the largest threat to peace (not only in Europe, but across the world) is hostility. We are far from a solution; but fight fire with fire, and you’ll burn the entire town down.