The tragic terror attack in Brussels this week has worsened fears over Europe’s vulnerability to the Islamic State (ISIS). This week’s massacre follows similar attacks in Paris late last year, and the modus operandi was typically ISIS: both attacks used the anonymity of homegrown radicals and terrorist freelancers to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting European city.
The Brussels attacks are likely to renew questions over the world’s strategy to counter ISIS – and will particularly call into question America’s lack of action in Syria. But despite political rhetoric and recurring terror attacks, President Obama has thus far stonewalled calls for American intervention. The Paris attacks couldn’t change his mind, and the Brussels tragedy likely won’t either – not least because this is Obama’s last year in office.
In a revealing new cover story for The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg provides deep insights into Obama’s foreign policy and the logic which informed the President’s decision not to act in Syria. “ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States,” Obama told Goldberg, while further arguing that the civil war in Syria was not a direct threat to American national security.
Goldberg writes that, while Obama concedes that ISIS poses threats to the rest of the Middle East and to US allies in Europe, the President believes that this is not a war for America to fight, in part because America doesn’t have to fight all of its allies’ wars. “Free riders aggravate me,” Obama said to Goldberg, “We don’t have to always be the ones who are up front.”
President Obama’s assessment of the threat posed by ISIS to America is, in fact, accurate. This really isn’t America’s problem; it’s Europe’s. And the President expects Europe to fight its own battles going forward, rather than making America spend its resources for Europe’s cause.
In a provocative article for Swarajya, R Jagannathan wrote that the war on terror has so far cost America a whopping $2.5 trillion since 2001 – more than all of India’s GDP – including both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and expenses incurred by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on internal defence against terror. Yet, in the 12 years that followed 9/11, America lost less than 1 percent of its citizens to terror-related activities – less than a hundredth of the casualties accounted for by gun violence.
This wasn’t merely because America managed to thwart attempted attacks; it was also because terror groups realize that there are far easier targets around the world than America. Europe, for one, is much closer, geographically, and provides homegrown terror recruits who are absent in the United States. According to official government sources, only a little over 100 fighters have left America to fight in Syria. By contrast, France alone has seen 1600 of its citizens travel to Syria, and the much smaller Belgium was home to over 500 fighters in Syria.
Much of this has to do with the more successful assimilation and integration of Muslims in the United States. Akbar Ahmed of the American University’s School of International Service says that while Muslims are Muslims both in Europe and in America, “there are huge sociological differences between the two groups.” European Muslims are largely homogeneous, for one – many being refugees from the Middle East and North Africa – while American Muslims hail from 77 different countries in the Middle East, South Asia, Africa and Europe. The homogeneity, experts say, has hampered the integration of Muslims in Europe, since they often socially isolate themselves on the basis of their national origin.
Then there’s the economic argument: Muslims in America are as likely as other Americans to report household incomes of over $100,000, according to a Pew Research study. By contrast, the unemployment rate for immigrants in France was almost double the rate for non-immigrants in 2013, according to France’s national statistics.
The logistical cost of carrying out attacks in faraway America, coupled with the more fertile grounds for radicalization in Europe, means that the terror threat posed by ISIS is far graver for Europe than it is for America. America would likely have to guard itself from attacks perpetrated by lone wolves inspired by ISIS, such as the attack on a Sydney café in December 2014. But the chances of ISIS cadre planning and organizing an attack on American soil are far less than the chances of them perpetrating violence in Europe.
By all counts, this is Europe’s struggle more than it is America’s. But that doesn’t mean that the world doesn’t stand to lose from ISIS attacks on Europe. By far the most vulnerable target in Europe today is the European Union (EU), which for decades has held an erstwhile bickering continent together through the creation of a common destiny. The EU’s success in promoting regional collaboration should be a model that inspires similar initiatives in other parts of the world – in South Asia for example, where decades of conflict have hampered growth and development in the world’s most promising economic region. But if the EU fails in the years to come, it would be a blow to regional cooperation everywhere.
Mohamed Zeeshan is a policy analyst based in Bangalore, India. He also writes for The Diplomat and The Huffington Post.
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