We have become so inured to suicide bombings that the fact that at least one of the Brussels attackers — the one who hit the airport — sacrificed his own life to kill others can easily get lost in the overall horror of the attacks.
It’s worth remembering that suicide bombing is a relatively recent tactic: It was first used on a significant scale by Hezbollah in Lebanon in the early 1980s with bloody attacks on the U.S. Marine barracks, the French barracks, the U.S. Embassy, and various Israeli headquarters. This tactic then migrated into the Sunni world where it was picked up by al-Qaeda and then achieved new heights of macabre ubiquity as it was employed by groups ranging from the Palestinian al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade to al-Qaeda in Iraq. Ironically, Hezbollah has now become so strong — with its own Iranian-equipped army and rocket force — that it no longer needs to rely on suicidal attacks, leaving the field to groups such as ISIS.
When the Israeli army faced a spate of suicide bombers during the Second Intifada, and when the U.S. military faced a similar spate during the Iraq War, it was often said that there is no way to stop an enemy who is willing to sacrifice his own life to take yours. This, in fact, became a favorite trope of Islamist terrorist groups which sought to instill fear in the West by proclaiming: “You love life; we love death.” Yet the Second Intifada failed and so did al-Qaeda in Iraq’s effort to drive the U.S. out of Iraq.
As we struggle for an answer to the threat posed by ISIS, it’s worth remembering how the U.S. and Israel in the past defeated suicidal terrorist groups. There is, of course, no simple answer, no magical solution, but the essence comes down to the realization that the threat comes not from demented individuals but from a network run by savvy organizers who are not themselves suicidal. (You don’t see the leaders of groups like ISIS or Hamas wearing suicide vests; it’s rare to even see their children engaging in such acts.) Suicide bombers have to be manufactured. Making the actual explosives is the least of the problems, although that requires significant expertise, too. The real issue is indoctrinating young men (and sometimes young women) to perform the unnatural — and, in Islam, forbidden — act of committing suicide and in the process taking the lives of innocents.
It can take months to recruit and train would-be suicide bombers and then additional weeks and months to locate a target, figure out the optimal time for an attack, and then put the bomber in a position to inflict maximal damage. If a counter-terrorist force can disrupt the network that makes the suicide bombing possible, then not even the willingness of individuals to kill themselves will suffice to create the kind of mass-casualty attacks that terrorists crave. At most, disorganized terrorists can carry off the kind of small-scale knifings that unfortunately have become all too regular an occurrence in Israel today.
So how should Western countries disrupt the ISIS network that makes possible attacks such as the ones in Paris and Brussels? There must be a domestic component, and a foreign component — and both have been lacking in recent years.
The domestic component is to address the homegrown roots of jihad. Belgium, for one, has become a hotbed of Islamic extremism. Only about 6 percent of the population is Muslim, but Belgium has sent 300-400 fighters to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria — the largest number of any European country. The Paris attacks last November, which were planned in Belgium, represented a belated and still inadequate wakeup call for Belgian authorities that they had to do something to address this threat. Unfortunately, the official response — sending anti-terrorist squads to bang down doors and drag out young Muslim men for interrogation — has plainly proved inadequate. It may even have backfired by engendering even greater hostility toward the state among Muslims who were already on the fringes of society. As one Belgian Muslim told CNN: “This has only filled us with hate.”
This should serve as a warning to fans of Donald Trump who think his get-tough approach to Muslims — he claims that “Islam hates us,” he wants to bar all Muslims from entering the U.S., and he wants to use torture “worse than waterboarding” — will solve the problem of terrorism. Such heavy-handed measures are more likely to backfire. What would prove more effective, but much harder to implement, would be for Belgium, France, and other European states to do a much better job of assimilating Muslim immigrants. The U.S. has more success in this regard, which is part of the reason why we face less of a terrorist threat — but now our success is endangered by Trump’s cynical hate-mongering.
No matter how successful domestic counter-terrorism efforts are, they will never suffice so long as the Islamic State continues to flourish and exert a powerful attraction to a small minority of Muslims from around the world. Thus, we come to the second plank of a successful counter-terrorist strategy: It is imperative for all countries that are worried about the threat of ISIS-inspired terrorism — which is to say, all countries with a substantial Muslim population — to band together to destroy the Islamic State. There is simply no other way to end the allure of ISIS for would-be terrorists. The West and even moderate Muslim nations cannot effectively counter ISIS’s highly effective propaganda as long as it is rooted in the reality that the Islamic State continues to exist and to implement a medieval brand of Islam in the face of unrelenting attacks from its enemies.
Airpower alone will not end the ISIS threat, especially not when it is applied as sporadically as it is today. (As I noted a few days ago, the U.S. is mounting 14 air strikes a day against ISIS, compared with 86 a day against the Taliban in the fall of 2001.) What is required are ground troops. Everyone would prefer that the majority of these forces be supplied by Iraq and Syria but, to rally Sunnis to the cause, the U.S. will have to do much more to offer them an incentive to turn against ISIS. This would require allaying their fears that they will exchange ISIS tyranny for the Iranian-backed Shiite death squads. It would greatly help to facilitate this process of mobilization if the U.S. and other nations (European and Arab) were willing to put more ground troops into the fight. This, too, is a vital part of what it will take to galvanize a Sunni revolt — the Sunnis must be assured, as they were during the surge in Iraq in 2007, that they are joining the “stronger tribe” by aligning against ISIS.
Simply to state the requirements for an effective program to counter ISIS terrorism is to make plain how far removed we are from achieving it. European states have made scant progress in winning over their disaffected Muslim populations, and now, thanks to Trump’s nefarious influence, the U.S. is in danger of alienating its own Muslims. Meanwhile, the U.S. has done all too little to galvanize a Sunni revolt against ISIS. As a result, the Islamic State has lost some territory on the margins but remains seemingly secure in its strongholds — Raqqa and Mosul — while continuing to expand abroad.
The tragedy is that even now — even after the Sinai and Paris and San Bernardino and Brussels attacks, after the televised beheadings and the sex slaves and the destruction of antiquities and the genocide against Christians, Yazidis, and Shiites — the West is still not treating the ISIS threat with the gravity it deserves. Unless we see real leadership on both sides of the Atlantic, it will be impossible to defeat the networks that continue to send suicide bombers to slaughter innocents.