Bel­gium Turkey and Is­lamic State’s strat­egy

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

The at­tacks in Bel­gium and Turkey must be con­sid­ered to­gether. They are at­tacks in the sym­bolic heart­lands of two po­ten­tial en­e­mies of the Is­lamic State, Europe and Turkey. The at­tacks are meant to desta­bilise each coun­try and re­cruit po­ten­tial op­er­a­tives from each coun­try’s pool of pos­si­ble ji­hadists.

There have been two at­tacks this past week, both ap­par­ently by the Is­lamic State, first in Turkey on March 19 and then in Bel­gium. The close se­quence of the two at­tacks might sim­ply be a co­in­ci­dence, but IS tends to be more strate­gic than other ter­ror­ist groups and has the abil­ity to co­or­di­nate at­tacks. There­fore, why would they choose Bel­gium and Turkey for their at­tacks?

One an­swer is that they have op­er­a­tives in both coun­tries. Turkey is a Mus­lim coun­try, and IS is able to re­cruit Turks and move other op­er­a­tives into Turkey if needed. Bel­gium has a sub­stan­tial Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion, which IS can tar­get for re­cruit­ing and in­sert­ing op­er­a­tives. But of course, that is true of many coun­tries.

It is in­ter­est­ing that th­ese at­tacks were against coun­tries IS con­sid­ers strate­gi­cally sig­nif­i­cant. Turkey’s sig­nif­i­cance is ob­vi­ous. It is a ma­jor power in the Middle East. It also had rel­a­tively be­nign re­la­tions with IS that have bro­ken down. In strik­ing Turkey, IS demon­strates to its fol­low­ers that it is able to strike at an en­emy. And it also, IS hopes, em­bold­ens po­ten­tial ji­hadists in­side of Turkey to strike, po­lit­i­cally and mil­i­tar­ily crip­pling Turkey’s abil­ity to strike IS in Syria and Iraq. IS is try­ing to shape Turkey’s be­hav­iour. And Turkey is an enor­mous pres­ence in the re­gion, as well as a sym­bol of non-Arab views of IS.

Bel­gium is not only one of the coun­tries of Europe’s core, as is France, but it is also in some sense the cap­i­tal of Europe. Brus­sels is the head­quar­ters of the Euro­pean Union’s sec­re­tar­iat. It is also near the head­quar­ters of NATO. By strik­ing Brus­sels, IS was strik­ing at Europe’s core. IS has come to see Europe as an en­emy, not only be­cause it sees it as Chris­tian, but also be­cause it sees it as hos­tile.

And this is where we get to the heart of the mat­ter strate­gi­cally. Turkey and Europe col­lec­tively form a po­ten­tial core for re­sis­tance to IS. The only pos­si­bil­ity IS has of de­ter­ring this ac­tion or of crip­pling their abil­ity to act is to con­duct ter­ror op­er­a­tions against them. If the op­er­a­tions are suc­cess­ful they will do two things. First, they will cre­ate a fac­tion in each na­tion op­posed to hos­til­i­ties with IS be­cause of the con­se­quences. Se­cond, they will utilise the sig­nif­i­cant pop­u­la­tion that could be re­cruited to join IS. Even fail­ing that im­me­di­ately, the in­evitable scru­tiny and re­pres­sion of this pop­u­la­tion could re­cruit op­er­a­tives.

IS is un­der sig­nif­i­cant pres­sure from con­ven­tional forces, and its bound­aries ap­pear to be con­tract­ing in Syria and Iraq. It needs to desta­bilise po­ten­tial en­e­mies and com­bine that with sym­bol­ism. At­tack­ing tourists near Tak­sim Square in the heart of Istanbul is one strat­egy. At­tack­ing Europe’s cap­i­tal is an­other. As it comes un­der pres­sure in Syria and Iraq, it must con­sider shift­ing from a con­ven­tional to an in­sur­gency role. An ideal mix is to main­tain more con­ven­tional op­er­a­tions while in­ten­si­fy­ing ter­ror­ist acts out­side of Syria and Iraq.

IS has few op­tions in this re­gard, but at­tack­ing Istanbul and Brus­sels strikes at the heart of two po­ten­tial threats, us­ing re­sources that were in the coun­try and gen­er­at­ing re­sponses that might strengthen their po­si­tion.

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