After Brussels: Are we doing enough to stop ISIS?

Image courtesy of Wikicommons.

By Alexandra Chinchilla

Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) became a threat to the international interests of the United States and its European allies once it seized large amounts of territory and destabilized Syria and Iraq. The 2015 Paris attacks showed, however, that ISIS also directly threatens the domestic security of Europe. As the recent attacks in Brussels indicate, the threat is serious and it remains. While U.S. and allied efforts to defeat ISIS in the Middle East are succeeding, more can be done to increase domestic security in the United States and Europe.

Although Europe has faced major terrorist attacks before (the 2004 Madrid bombings and 2005 London bombings), the ISIS-directed attacks are particularly disturbing. The Paris attacks were directly planned by ISIS in Syria, and carried out by terrorists who had fought in Syria and organized a terrorist cell operating in Europe. We now know that this same group organized the Brussels attacks. In contrast, the Madrid and London bombings were al-Qaeda inspired, but organized domestically.

Secondly, since the Paris attacks were organized and implemented by trained militants, they were relatively sophisticated, requiring a degree of planning and tactics that domestic terrorists find challenging. And the failure of the Belgian authorities to find and destroy the terrorist cell after the Paris attacks points to failures in the European response to terrorism. All of these reasons indicate that we should view the attacks in Europe as a call to action.

Are we doing enough to stop ISIS?

ISIS’s ability to destabilize the Middle East and direct terrorist attacks abroad rests on its control of territory. Territory gives ISIS a safe space to operate and allows ISIS to fund itself through rent extraction and illegal oil sales. As leader of the international coalition against ISIS, the United States’ strategic objective is to “degrade and destroy” ISIS by forcing it to give up territory.

The United States is working to achieve this objective through air strikes and deployment of small numbers of U.S. forces to help local allies defeat ISIS militarily. The 3,500 U.S. troops in Iraq and 50 special operations troops in Syria provide on-the-ground intelligence, advise local military forces, and secure air bases needed for air strikes and to resupply local militias.

U.S. efforts against ISIS have actually been highly successful. As Professor Robert Pape comments in a recent editorial, ISIS is losing territory, including more than 40 percent of the territory it held in Iraq and 20 percent overall. Pape views the attacks in Europe as ISIS’s response to losing ground: “Attacks in Western countries are meant to do two things: force those countries to drop out of the coalition, or pressure them into overreacting.” The best thing the United States can do is continue its current strategy of working with local allies and using air strikes to hit ISIS where it hurts by destroying ISIS supply lines, infrastructure, and leadership.

We can limit ISIS’s ability to threaten us by increasing our domestic security. While the U.S. and Europe have invested heavily in domestic security since 9/11, more can be done. The attacks in the Brussels Airport terminal and the Maalbeek Subway Station show the vulnerability of “soft” targets — places where large numbers of people gather with little to no security screening. The situation is similar in the United States. The primary purpose of current airport security is to screen passengers, which leaves the terminal unprotected.

Several changes that we could implement include vehicular checkpoints leading up to the terminal, increased presence in the terminal of trained security personnel armed with machine guns to serve as a visible deterrent and to detect unusual behavior, and new technology to detect explosives.

One example of this new technology: NATO and Russia collaborated on producing the STANDEX project, a program designed to conduct real-time screening of a terminal or other secured area for explosives by detecting “anomalies in the molecular composition of the objects or people under surveillance.” According to NATO, STANDEX has passed testing and is currently in the process of commercialization; Russia claims NATO stalled the project after Russia’s takeover of Crimea. In any case, STANDEX is a valuable technology that we need to operationalize.

Additionally, we can increase security by requiring all personnel at sensitive sites, especially sites with nuclear material, to have adequate security clearances. ISIS may have intended to steal nuclear material from a Belgian nuclear plant, as police raids after the attacks found evidence that terrorists were monitoring a senior scientist working at the site. Two former employees of the nuclear plant also left to join ISIS in Syria. If employees of nuclear facilities in Belgium had terrorist ties, this points to a serious problem in personnel hiring procedures which must be corrected.

The United States should use this opportunity to review its own hiring procedures at facilities that handle nuclear material. To its credit, Congress has recently recognized the need to strengthen transportation security, including personnel hiring and screening procedures.

The Brussels attacks indicate that the Paris attacks were not an isolated incident and that all of Europe will be a target of the group. The United States is taking the correct approach of using air strikes to destroy ISIS’s hold on territory. However, Europe must increase its domestic security through better security measures for transportation terminals and stricter security screenings of personnel at sensitive facilities. The United States should do the same.


Alexandra Chinchilla is a PhD student in International Relations at the University of Chicago. Her research topics include the role of the military in U.S. foreign policy, alliance politics, external intervention in civil wars, and Poland and Eastern Europe. She received her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University and has interned for the State Department and Congress.

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