Last week’s terror attacks on Brussels are a horrific reminder of the grim reality of the fight against the Islamic State extremist group. The bombings at the airport and metro, which killed at least 31 people, including three suicide bombers, and wounded more than 300 others, were a savage attack on innocent civilians, an attempt to shift attention as Islamic State forces lose ground on the battlefield. The atrocities must also remind us of Islamic State’s goal to bring us down to its level: The group wants the West to abandon the values that give us both the moral high ground and the means to defeat it. It wants us to declare a civilizational war that will confirm the Islamic State message that Muslims cannot coexist with the West.
It is believed that five suicide bombers attacked the Brussels airport and subway on March 22. Three of the men have been identified; the fate of the other two is unknown. One is thought to be on the run and the other may have been killed in the attacks. The Islamic State group took credit for the bombings in Brussels, just as it claimed to have been behind the coordinated series of attacks in Paris in November that killed 130 people.
Investigators believe the same terror network was responsible for both assaults. On March 15 and 18, Belgian authorities raided two suspected hideouts; at the first they had a shootout that left one person dead and found Islamic State literature, weapons and explosives. Two other individuals escaped and they are thought to have been involved in the suicide bombings a week later. Evidence seized there led them to a second location where they found Salah Abdeslam, along with several others, who is suspected of being involved in the Paris attacks.
Before the authorities could round up more suspects, the terror cell struck. Since then, Belgian authorities have continued their raids, arresting more people. In France, the police claim to have stopped a plot by terrorists “that was at an advanced stage,” although there is as yet no evidence to link that plot to the Paris and Brussels attacks.
Those successes have come too late. Investigation of the Brussels attacks has already revealed failures of the Belgian security apparatus. One of the Brussels bombers, jailed for bank robbery, had been arrested for violating the terms of his parole but was again released. His brother, another one of the suicide bombers and another petty criminal who also jumped parole, was arrested in Turkey earlier this year and deported to the Netherlands. Turkish authorities notified Belgian and Dutch police that they suspected he was trying to join Islamic State forces in Syria but the warning was disregarded. The Belgian interior and justice ministers offered their resignations in the aftermath of the attacks but they were refused.
It might seem ironical that Islamic State is stepping up its attacks on Western targets as it appears to be losing on the battlefield. The United States has announced that during the last month it killed both the Islamic State minister of war, Omar al-Shishani, and Abd ar-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, the Islamic State “finance minister” in air strikes in Syria. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter reported last week that the U.S. military is “systematically eliminating” the Islamic State top leadership.
Those killings occur as military forces are retaking the offensive in the war and reversing the Islamic State progress. A combination of Russian-supported Syrian forces, Kurdish militias and the U.S.-backed Iraqi army have been on the offensive against Islamic State and reclaiming significant amounts of territory. It is reckoned that Islamic State has lost as much as 40 percent of the land it controlled at its peak in 2014. The group has not launched a successful offensive in nearly nine months, its troops are demoralized and disorganized, and it is losing a member of its top leadership every few days.
Unfortunately, however, a battlefield defeat may well mean less than it should. The Iraqi government does not look prepared to administer the territory it reclaims, with Shiite and Sunni groups set to continue their struggle for political control. In Syria, the Damascus government appears unchastened, which means that it is likely to continue the brutal behavior that sparked that civil war and opened the door to Islamic State.
Meanwhile, in the West, the ease with which militants have moved throughout Europe and the failure of security authorities to surveil and control suspects has resulted in a loss of confidence in the ideals and values behind its open societies. In Europe, the Schengen system of visa-free travel within the EU — one of if not the most important accomplishments of European integration — is under assault and may be discontinued. Anti-immigrant, populist parties are on the rise and anti-Islamic sentiment is gathering steam. Similar rhetoric is heard in the U.S. Throughout the West, fear is growing and civil liberties are under assault as a result.
The Islamic State group wants the West to give in to those fears, to make plain its hostility to all Muslims and declare war against 1.6 billion people — or one-quarter of the world’s population. Those numbers alone make plain the absurdity of such a prospect. But irresponsible politicians in many countries continue their fear-mongering, and Islamic State helps fan those flames. This is no way to honor the growing number of Islamic State victims and will only undermine hopes of prevailing in this fight.