January 22, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Larger Threat and the Middle East

• A wave of attacks and arrests in recent weeks has created a sense of siege in Western Europe

• However, the threat remains dispersed, and while attacks may come, their impact will be limited

• In contrast, the situation in Iraq and Syria is becoming more serious and difficult to solve, especially as other issues add further layers of complexity

• While the short-term threat from terrorism is real, Western Europe will face longer term problems from instability in the Middle East.

With the arrests over the last few days of suspected violent extremists in Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, and the U.K., it would seem that Europe is facing a serious internal threat from a mix of lone wolves, known wolves, wolf packs, and fighters returning from Syria and Iraq. The threat levels have been raised and law enforcement agencies and security units are guarding potential targets. Officials are warning that another attack is highly likely.

However it is the scale of the reaction to an attack rather than the attack itself that defines a ‘terrorist spectacular.’ Terrorist groups hardly need remind us of their presence for so long as the authorities do it for them. But if terrorists rely on the oxygen of publicity to survive and prosper, it is neither possible nor reasonable to persuade media outlets to restrict their coverage, to allow authorities to do what they have to do with less attention. Terrorist attacks are gripping stories, visually dramatic, and immediately impactful.

In the meantime though, the political background to the current wave of terrorism is less easily reported and much harder to understand. In the same short timeframe as the recent arrests in Europe, events in Syria and Iraq suggest an escalation of the direct involvement of outsiders. An alleged Israeli drone strike killed a senior Lebanese Hizballah commander and an Iranian General on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, and Canadian Special Forces have engaged with Islamic State fighters in Iraq. With all the inevitability of a multi-faceted war, the roles of the various players are becoming more obvious and increasingly direct.

The terrorist threat to Western European states is real but easy to exaggerate. Whatever terrorist attacks do occur, the nature of society will not change in the way that terrorists seek—if they indeed have any clear idea of the society that they want rather than merely of the one they do not want. The most effective counterterrorism measures are as likely to be in the areas of social, educational, and economic development as they are in the security sector. While inspired and encouraged by the activities of the Islamic State or al-Qaeda, terrorist attacks or discovered plots in the West have shown no signs of following a strategic pattern of interconnected activity. The instructions remain broadly directed and merely exhort supporters to do what they can wherever they can against a wide range of targets.

Things are very different in Syria and Iraq. With no end in sight, nor any clear picture of how an end to the conflict might look, the Syrian civil war continues to assume the shape of a wider confrontation. In Iraq too, the proxy war has taken on new dimensions with the involvement of the wrong sorts of Kurds and growing tensions between the Iraqi government and its coalition partners. The coalition itself is divided as to what to do next, and the attention of key players has been distracted: for Saudi Arabia by the fast deterioration of the situation in Yemen; for Iran by the looming showdown between hardliners and the government on the nuclear issue; for Israel and Turkey by forthcoming elections and wider concerns about internal politics and external relations.

The Islamic State has suffered some tactical defeats and internal dissent, but its grip on territory is strong and its ability to challenge the world, most recently seen in its threat to kill two Japanese hostages, remains clear and obvious. Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, has continued to mop up weaker partners and consolidate its position as a major recruiter of new fighters. The Assad regime has no strategic response to the partitioning of the country and the flow of refugees and the numbers of displaced persons continues to provide all the elements of a massive and sustained humanitarian crisis with inevitable political consequences for neighboring countries.

While media coverage may lead Western European countries to think that their most immediate and pressing problems lie in the current wave of domestic terrorist threats, far more substantial and longer-term problems lie in the growing political and social instability in the Middle East and the challenges they pose to the global order.


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