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.
News of terror attacks floods the media, and European societies face unprecedented insecurity due to the growth of one infamous group that alone claims responsibility for the majority of attacks that have hit Europe over the past few years: the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, now known as the Islamic State.
Like almost every other phenomenon in the world today, terrorism has developed a transnational dimension making it increasingly easy for terrorists to achieve their objective of terrorising civilians, with the ultimate aim of coercing governments and the international political community into giving into 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, so-called “non-believers”, which also includes various sects of Islam, which differ in ideology. Various terrorist organisations 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 an Islamic caliphate.
Therefore, seizing control over territory is of utmost importance to ISIL fanatics. This has only agitated the Syrian crisis. ISIL 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. ISIL ultimately grew out of instability in Iraq, following the US occupation and the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and today controls a little less than 7 percent of Syrian territory.
Now, ISIL is expanding its base in Europe, as a ground for recruitment and target for atrocities.
But why is Europe a target for ISIL? 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, ISIL’s caliph, deems it a “conspiracy” aimed at deciding the future of the people of the Middle East, without their consent, by dividing the region into spheres of influence between the French and the British.
Modern state borders were drawn based on the agreement and today, according to ISIL, “wars are being fought to preserve them”. ISIL views this as the exploitation of Middle Eastern lands at the hands of European countries. It has used this grievance to justify its attacks. The details of the Sykes-Picot agreement have contributed to the instability in Iraq and Syria, the former being a British colonial enterprise and the latter a France one.
Both nations wracked by instability and coups until the Hussein and Assad regimes were established. Both countries experienced further political crises that morphed into deep political vacuums, which facilitated the creation of ISIL. Furthermore, the “us versus them” mindset, borne out of a supposedly extreme profiling of Muslims has fostered ISIL’s hostility towards the US and its European allies.
There is no doubt that ISIS holds the US and Europe responsible for the miseries of the Middle East, especially in Iraq and Syria. Abu Ahmed al-Adnani of ISIL released an audio clip asking true believers to use all means available to carry out attacks against non-believers, especially those in Europe and the USA. He said the “smallest action you [‘true believers’] do in their heartland is better and more enduring to us [ISIL] than what you would, if you were with us”.
What followed was a series of seemingly small scale attacks across Europe, some of which were indisputably inspired by messages from ISIL leaders.
The Coincidental Rise of Populism
However, the fear of terrorists often makes governments target the wrong enemy. The rise of terrorist attacks has not only seen the rise of 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 a wider increase in the anti-refugee and anti-Islam sentiment across Europe.
A recent survey of more than 10,000 Europeans from more than ten 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 capitalise 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 an opportunity for recruitment in European countries due to the states’ secularism “coupled with a sense of marginalisation 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 marginalised. And the more they manage to ‘recruit’, the more repressive the populist governments aim at becoming. This widens the gulf and makes Europe an easier target for ISIS.
The notion of a Third World War does not seem unfathomable, only this time, the enemy is unlike anything states have seen before. 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, must appreciate that ISIL thrives on identity politics, and therefore aim to create better integration programs for the refugees. This would reduce the radical profiling of refugees as outsiders, and reduce ISIL’s scope to recruit.
At the end of the day, the largest threat to global peace is ISIL. A solution is far from imminent, but fostering greater social cohesion will be a step in the right direction.