ISIS terrorism in Paris and Brussels underscores the global character of the Islamist threat, but this should surprise no one, given the history of Islamist violence since September 11, 2001: Bali (October 12, 2002 and October 1, 2005), Madrid (March 11, 2004), London (July 7, 2005) Mumbai (November 26-29, 2008), Fort Hood (November 5, 2009), the Boko Haram kidnappings (April 14-15, 2014), Paris (January 7, 2015) and many more. Islamism poses an ongoing challenge to international order: it is not only a problem for the Middle East. Yet the attacks in Paris and Brussels took place at a moment of particular vulnerability for Europe, marked by domestic political instability, the challenges of mass immigration, and the ongoing friction on the border with Russia. These factors amplify the significance of the Islamist threat, which requires a multidimensional response in terms of domestic security, international strategy, and the war of ideas.
The events in Brussels firstly highlighted domestic security flaws in the police apparatus and intelligence gathering capability, failings due in part to the unique dysfunctionality of the Belgian state. (Anyone who advocates a binational state for Israel and Palestine need only look at Belgium’s inability to forge a genuine union of French and Flemish speakers to find an irrefutable counter-example.) Yet there were also serious deficiencies in security coordination and surveillance strategies on a European level. For all of its bureaucratic integration, which has made the EU notorious, responsibility for security remains fragmented and dispersed, reflecting the persistence of claims on national sovereignty, despite the rhetoric of a single Europe.
Developing an effective security regime would be an appropriate task for NATO, that in any case still needs to mature into the era of cyber warfare and surveillance. It is through NATO that the US could provide leadership on the security front. Without American leadership, European security will remain fragmented and inadequate to the task.
Secondly, beyond questions of counter-terrorism, the Islamist threat—including both the real danger of radical networks and the perceived dangers imputed to mass immigration—has had an international strategic impact by contributing to interstate conflicts, in the still unresolved debate over whether immigrants to Germany might be resettled in other EU countries. In addition, immigration has fueled a widespread anti-EU sentiment, thereby weakening Europe’s capacity to act. Terrorist violence especially has fed the anti-immigrant populist movements—the National Front in France, the Alternative for Germany and PEGIDA (which stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West), the Freedom Party in Austria, and similar movements elsewhere, including support for the “Brexit” vote in June for the UK to leave the EU.
Anti-immigrant anxieties represent responses especially to the mass immigration from Syria, itself a direct result of the violence of the Assad regime and the intentional target choices of the Russian bombing campaign. One cannot discount the likelihood that Russian strategy in Syria purposefully involved inciting the immigration to Europe precisely in order to burden the EU with political and social problems. A Europe occupied by the consequences of immigration may well lose its will and capacity to resist Russian ambitions to rebuild the sphere of influence in Eastern Europe that it lost at the end of the Cold War. In other words, Islamism and Muslim immigration have been exploited and mobilized in a higher level international competition between Moscow and the West.
Precisely because of this context, the conflict with Russia, US leadership is indispensable. A Europe enervated by the impact of immigration will only serve Russian strategic interests in a manner consistent with Soviet efforts in the Cold War to neutralize Europe: Russia prefers weak powers on its western border. Yet two can play this game. Russia faces its own Islamist vulnerabilities in the southern tier of post-Soviet space, from the Caucasus to Kazakhstan, where the mere threat of US support for irredentist forces might constrain Moscow’s ambitions elsewhere.
Islamism poses a threat internationally, and especially in the West, not only because of the terror networks or the geostrategic implications but, thirdly, because of the power of its ideological vision. We are in a war of ideas. The proponents of Islamism project a compelling critique of western modernity that falls on fertile soil among alienated immigrant youth in European ghettoes. Against a perceived western decadence, it offers clear values, binding allegiances and a narrative that nurtures resentment and blame.
That narrative depends less on traditional Islamic contents than on the garden-variety animosity to the West that circulates through radical circles, left-wing populist parties and parts of academia. The Syrian immigrants who make it into a university in the UK or the US in pursuit of education, integration and upward mobility, are likely to encounter an anti-imperialist milieu of political correctness that encourages them to hold the West in contempt and to dwell on their grievances, imagined or real, rather than their own prospects for individual advancement. In addition, while some Middle East immigrants no doubt arrive in the West carrying with them the habitual anti-Semitism to which they have been exposed for years, it is more worrisome that they will find their anti-Semitism endorsed by members of the engaged professoriate and their student followings in American and European universities. The ideological threat of Islamism has less to do with genuine Muslim traditions than with the critique of the West purveyed by progressive intellectuals.
This is where the war of ideas has to be waged. To counter the alliance of Islamism and western anti-imperialism, a robust defense of the West and its open societies is crucial: societies that welcome immigration with the expectation that they embrace the democratic values of tolerance, freedom of expression and individual responsibility. However, as long as vocal members of the intellectual class remain hostile to classic liberal values, Islamists will find their own hostility to the West reaffirmed. As important as it is to pursue security coordination and international strategy, the Islamist threat will not be defeated until the West mounts an unequivocal defense of its own values.