Expert Speak Atlantic Files
Published on Mar 25, 2016
Brussels attacks a desperate act by a weakening ISIS: Expert

In the wake of yet another dastardly ISIS attack in Europe, ORF’s Terrorism Watch Programme did an e-mail interview with Max Abrahms, one of the top experts on terror groups, especially the ISIS. Abrahms is a professor of political science, Northeastern University, USA, and a member at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is also a senior fellow at George Washington University's Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, and a board member at the Human Security Centre in London, the Center for the Study of Terrorism in Rome, and on the journal Terrorism and Political Violence. He had participated in the discussion on ‘South by South-West: The Threat in the Neighbourhood’ at the recent Raisina Dialogue, organised by Observer Research Foundation and the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India.

ORF: What’s most remarkable about the Belgium attacks?

MA: What’s most remarkable is the size of the terrorist network. It’s become clear that the perpetrators of the Brussels attacks were connected to the Paris attacks -- part of a network of over 35 people. That’s a huge number of people and deeply worrisome. Political scientists have found that there is power in numbers. All else equal, organizations tend to gain capability as the number of members grows. Indeed, the number of fighters is commonly used as a proxy to measure militant group capability. This is a reasonable measure because research has found a strong correlation between the membership size of a group and the amount of bloodshed it inflicts. Of course, even a lone wolf terrorist can inflict lots of harm. The American lone wolf terrorist Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people in the mid-1990s. But a single person cannot easily sustain a campaign. Two Islamic State-inspired attackers managed to kill 14 people at a Christmas party this past December in San Bernardino, California. Can you imagine how much more damage they could have inflicted with a network of over 35 people? So, I am most struck by the size of the network involved in the Belgium attacks. This is really the nightmare we worried about, as large numbers of foreign jihadists are returning to the West not with peace on their minds.

ORF: How do you explain the timing of the attacks?

MA: I have coined a new concept, which I call “The Terrorism Weakness Paradox.” The concept is that as terrorist organizations get weakened, they can appear to gain strength as their violence becomes more geographically dispersed. There is no question Islamic State is getting weaker, especially in its stronghold of Syria and Iraq. Thanks to the U.S., its allies (especially the Kurds), the Syrian military and Russia, Islamic State is losing battles, territory, revenue, the ability to pay fighters, propaganda output, even interest in the Caliphate, as reflected in the leadership’s appeals for new recruits to head elsewhere, such as to Libya and other areas of weak government control. As Islamic State becomes weaker as an organization, it naturally has stronger incentive to decentralize to places where opposition is less stiff. So, I predict that as Islamic State continues to take a pounding in Syria and Iraq, we will paradoxically see attacks become more geographically dispersed, which can give the false appearance of enhanced organizational capability.

ORF: But why Belgium in particular?

MA: There are two main schools of thought about the motives of terrorists. The dominant paradigm is the Grievance Model of Terrorism. This model posits that people turn to terrorism to redress grievances, especially government oppression. An alternative is the Opportunity Model for Terrorism. This model posits that terrorists are attracted to targets that are propitious for waging terrorism. In a way, the two models assume opposite structural conditions. Whereas the Grievance Model predicts terrorists will concentrate where they are oppressed, the Opportunity Model predicts they will head to places where they are relatively unmolested by governments. I am a bigger believe in the Opportunity Model, especially for explaining Islamic State. Islamic State set up shop in Belgium not because the government has a notoriously aggressive foreign policy or is known for cracking down on Muslim extremists, but because the government has had a hands-off policy towards them. Belgium seemed to offer a cozy place for extremists to thrive, just like other power vacuums around the world which are also attracting Islamic State from Yemen to Afghanistan to Libya.

ORF: But more specifically, was the timing of the attacks related to the arrest of Salah Abdeslam?

MA: I think so. Capturing an important terrorist has cross-cutting effects on a group. On one hand, it marginally decreases the group’s capability by removing a member from the streets. On the other hand, arrests increase the motivation of groups to strike back to demonstrate that they can still inflict pain. The attacks in Belgium were not the softest targets, as they included an airport and metro station. Furthermore, the attackers used suicide belts, all of which suggests pre-planning. That said, I think the arrest likely expedited an attack that was in the works. The reason I believe this is because the attackers left behind large amounts of explosives in their apartment. Reportedly, the attackers wanted a mini-van to take them to the airport to launch the attack, but a sedan came to pick them up instead, forcing them to leave behind some bombs in haste.

ORF: So, are you saying Islamic State members aren’t that bright?

MA: I do think observers often overrate the intelligence of terrorists. The truth is that committing terrorism is very, very easy especially when the perpetrators are prepared to die and seem content to strike almost any target. There is variation in how strategic terrorist groups are. Contrary to media reporting, Islamic State is on the low-end. The leadership has an open-door policy, where it says that absolutely anyone in the world can join Islamic State – you just have to commit violence in the group’s name. An organization with zero admissions standards will naturally attract mediocre members.

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