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ISIS targets ‘gray zone’ of moderate Islam

A woman wrote a tribute to the victims in Brussels, a day after blasts hit the Belgian capital.PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP/Getty Images

What does ISIS’s attack in Brussels mean for the United States? Will ISIS continue to carry out attacks in the West? The answer is: very likely, yes. We can expect several kinds of incidents in the West: lone-wolf attacks, inspired by ISIS and carried out by individuals or groups that train and equip themselves without the involvement of ISIS-trained operatives; plots carried out or directed by returned foreign-fighters, probably in combination with local recruits; and assaults perpetrated by ISIS operating from ISIS-held territory. What does ISIS aim to achieve with these attacks on Western soil, and how should we react?

ISIS’s goals are contradictory. On the one hand, it aims to run and expand its totalitarian caliphate in the territory it controls, primarily in the Middle East and North Africa. On the other hand, it aims to goad the West into a final apocalyptic battle in Syria. Attacks in the West would seem to put ISIS’s state-running project at risk because they invite massive retaliation. But ISIS has spelled out a third goal — to eliminate what it calls the “gray zone” of moderate Islam, practiced by individuals living in the West, and to make moderate Muslims feel unsafe as a result of prejudice.


This project is much more easily carried out in Europe than in the United States. There is little evidence that “Islam hates America.” On the contrary, American Muslims, on average, are happy to be living here. A 2011 poll carried out by Pew Research Center on US Politics and Policy showed that a majority of American Muslims were concerned about Islamic extremism, both at home and abroad. Muslim Americans were significantly more satisfied (56 percent) with the way things are going in the United States than the general public (23 percent). Nearly two-thirds (66 percent) said that the quality of life for Muslims living in the United States is better than it is in most Muslim-majority countries. A majority believes that most Muslims who immigrate to the United States want to adopt American customs and way of life.

These findings were corroborated by a smaller but more recent poll carried out by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, which confirmed that Muslims are significantly more satisfied with the direction the country is going than are other religious groups in the United States. That sentiment could change, however, with discussion of patrolling and controlling Muslim neighborhoods, or requiring Muslims to register with the US government. That type of draconian curtailment of rights could actually facilitate and catalyze ISIS’s goals of American Muslim alienation. It is worth noting that some 40 percent of those arrested in connection with ISIS-related crimes were American-born converts to Islam.


Muslims living in Europe face a different situation. European Muslim youth describe themselves, often accurately, as victims of prejudice in the workplace and in society more generally. In the most recent European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey, one in three respondents reported experiencing discrimination, with the effect greatest among Muslims aged 16 to 24 (overall discrimination rates decline with age). Muslims in Europe are far more likely to be unemployed and to receive lower pay for the same work than “native” Europeans. Consequently, Muslim immigrants in Europe are disproportionately impoverished. While 10 percent of native Belgians live below the poverty line, that number is 59 percent for Turks and 56 percent for Moroccan immigrants in Belgium. In 2013, Geert Bourgeois, minister for integration and leader of the Flemish government, cited a report stating that less than one-third of young Muslims felt accepted by Flemish society.


Many Muslim immigrants in Belgium are children of guest workers who were never integrated into the broader society. In 2010, a Salafi group called Sharia4Belgium was formed, with the goal of instituting Sharia law in Belgium. Its leader, Fouad Belkacem, had called for homosexuals to be punished with death, and publicly supported Osama bin Laden. He was also involved in drug running and petty crime. The group was actively recruiting youth to join violent Sunni extremist groups in Syria. Sharia4Belgium was finally designated a terrorist organization in February 2015, and its leader sentenced to 12 years imprisonment.

Belgium has the highest rate, per capita, among Western European countries, of foreign jihadi fighters. According to Pieter Van Ostaeyen, 562 Belgian citizens have attempted to leave or have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join jihadi groups. In November 2015, Belgian Chief Police Commissioner Catherine de Bolle said that of 474 Belgian nationals who have traveled as foreign fighters, 77 had died, 130 had returned, and over 200 remained in Syria.

ISIS aims to appeal, in its own words, to the people “drowning in oceans of disgrace, being nursed on the milk of humiliation, and being ruled by the vilest of all people.” It claims to offer disenfranchised youth — who see no way to live with honor in the West — a chance to reinvent themselves as heroes in someone else’s violent dystopian dream. Some of them will carry out their jihad in the West. Belgian authorities say they don’t have enough manpower to surveil suspected terrorists, and that one of the attackers is still at large.


How are we to respond? Clearly, we in the West are going to have to make some targets harder than they already are. We have to ensure that intelligence is being improved and shared both within and between countries. But we must always bear in mind that terrorists play jujitsu: They hope to induce a reaction on our part that furthers their goals.

Jessica Stern is a research professor at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies. Her latest book, co-authored with J.M. Berger, is “ISIS: The State of Terror.’’