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Brussels and the Forgotten Lessons of the Paris Attacks

Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are playing right into ISIS's hands.
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People light candles at a makeshift memorial at Place de la Bourse following attacks in Brussels on March 22, 2016. (Photo: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images)

People light candles at a makeshift memorial at Place de la Bourse following attacks in Brussels on March 22, 2016. (Photo: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, two coordinated explosions left at least 34 people dead and over 200 injured. The attacks, which occurred at the crowded departure terminal at Brussels' international airport and a subway station near the headquarters of the European Union, took place just a few days after the arrest of Salah Abdeslam, the only surviving ringleader of the horrifying attacks that rocked Paris in November. ISIS quickly took responsibility for Tuesday's attacks in a statement released through the terrorist-affiliated Amaq News Agency.

As quickly as the terror group claimed credit for the horrifying attack, American politicians responded in the worst possible way. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump declared that the attack was "just the beginning," quickly linking the attacks to Muslim refugees who have streamed into Europe amid Syria's deadly civil war, CNN reports. "If they could expand the laws, I would do a lot more than waterboarding," Trump said in an appearance on the Today Show in the aftermath of the attacks. "You have to get the information from these people." Given Trump's calls to ban Muslims from entering the country after the Paris attacks, this should surprise no one.

Rival candidate Ted Cruz went one step further, all but calling for Americans to turn their anger on Muslim communities at home. "We need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized," he said in a statement decrying "political correctness" as America's biggest obstacle to rooting our Muslim extremists at home. "We need to secure the southern border to prevent terrorist infiltration ... the days of the United States voluntarily surrendering to the enemy to show how progressive and enlightened we can be are at an end. Our country is at stake."

This, as I wrote in the aftermath of November's deadly Paris attacks, is exactly what ISIS wants, and the immediate reaction of leading Republican politicians (especially Trump, whose campaign runs on the anxiety and resentment of voters) shows just how little we've learned in the last few months:

But this is exactly what ISIS wants: for the West to panic, as it did after 9/11, and throw itself into a long, costly war against the Muslim world. Other Islamic groups have, to some extent, accepted the realities of modern geopolitics. (Think: the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas' political dealings, or the Taliban's negotiations with the government of Afghanistan.) But recognizing borders and boundaries is "ideological suicide" to the Islamic State, an "act of apostasy," as Graeme Wood wrote in March; to sustain its ideology and, in turn, its allure to disaffected young Muslims around the world, the Islamic State needs to exist in a constant state of war against the crusaders of the West. This explains why ISIS doesn't really care about the indiscriminate deaths of Muslims, which comes as an ideological departure from terror groups like al-Qaeda. For ISIS, a terror attack that yields an international campaign of Western drone strikes, which in turn primarily kill civilians, is actually an end goal.

Research confirms that this is absolutely the goal of ISIS terrorists. As Tom Jacobs reported in November, recent studies indicate that anti-Muslim sentiment in the aftermath of terrorist attacks has severely limited Muslim assimilation into the culture of host countries, a prerequisite for terror groups who focus on recruiting homegrown terrorists to help carry out their campaigns abroad:

The 9/11 attacks "induced a backlash against ... the Muslim immigrant community in the U.S.," which has "slowed their rate of assimilation," [Hebrew University economists Eric Gould and Esteban Klor] write in The Economic Journal. This increased insularity, they add, is not due to pre-existing trends. Rather, "Muslim immigrants are reacting specifically to hate crimes against Muslims."

"The Muslim community in the U.S. is relatively new and mostly foreign-born," Gould and Klor write, pointing to a 2007 Pew Research Center survey finding only 37 percent of American Muslims are native-born. That same survey found "no indication of increased alienation" in this population.

However, other research suggests religion is now playing a greater role in American Muslims' lives. A 2007 study concluded that "the process of re-Islamization has accelerated in the aftermath of 9/11, as an increasing number of adolescents and young adults (daughters of immigrant Muslims) are assuming a public Islamic identity by wearing the hijab (headscarf)."

The conclusion of this research is both depressing and alarming. In the aftermath of 9/11, the rate of integration among Muslims into the wider American culture has been on the decline. It's not just a product of seeking to protect one's cultural or ethnic identity against degradation; it's also directly tied to increased anxiety over Muslims in countries suffering from terrorist attacks, a defensive reaction to a sudden uptick in hostility in an adoptive country.

This is the vicious cycle of terrorism in a nutshell: Terrorist attacks produce hostility toward Muslims, resulting in a rise in hate crimes, which in turn leads to a Muslim population that not only focuses more heavily on religious identity, but withdraws from assimilation into their host culture—the deadly combination of resentment and alienation that makes Western Muslims so vulnerable to recruitment by the likes of ISIS. Consider the horrified reaction to Trump's xenophobia by terrorist expert Malcolm Nance on MSNBC: "Good God, they're probably cutting videos of this right now ... [Trump] right now is validating the cartoonish view that they tell their operatives ... that America is a racist nation, xenophobic, anti-Muslim, and that that's why you must carry out terrorist attacks against them.... It's irresponsible and it needs to stop."

The impulsive reaction of fear and anger embodied by Trump and Cruz is in some ways understandable, and it's been a feature of America's response to terrorism since 9/11. But as the aftermath of those historic terror attacks showed, policies based on xenophobia and revenge can lead to disastrous outcomes: two costly wars, a sprawling terror caliphate built on post-9/11 xenophobia, and an electorate that's almost entirely rejected the idea of America as a melting pot.

So what's the best response in the aftermath of Brussels? Don't just bomb your enemy; know them. It's the only way to avoid feeding into this vicious cycle of anger and alienation—and breaking that cycle will help destroy ISIS faster than any prolonged campaign of airstrikes ever could.