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What Fueled the Attacks in Brussels?

An expert weighs in on the Islamic State's cycle of violence.
Tributes are left at the Place de la Bourse following the attacks on March 22, 2016, in Brussels, Belgium. (Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images)

Tributes are left at the Place de la Bourse following the attacks on March 22, 2016, in Brussels, Belgium. (Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images)

Early Tuesday morning, the Brussels airport was rocked by two explosions that killed 14 people and injured dozens more. The airport attacks, which included one suicide bombing, were followed just an hour later by an explosion at the Maalbeek subway station that killed another 20 people and left more than 100 injured. Islamic State fighters quickly claimed responsibility for the attacks.

The Belgian capital has become a seat of anti-immigration investigations since the Paris attacks last year; just last week, Salah Abdeslam, the last surviving suspect in the terrorist attacks in France that left 130 dead, was arrested in the city.

Pacific Standard spoke with Esteban Klor, a professor at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem who researches terrorist group recruitment, about how our response to the attacks in Brussels might play into the hands of ISIS.


What makes Brussels a likely target for ISIS attacks?

I don't know why Brussels became a target, but ongoing research I'm conducting with professor Efraim Benmelech from Northwestern University shows that ISIS recruiting is positively correlated with countries with high gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, countries that are relatively homogenous in terms of their social characteristics and ethnic characteristics, and countries that have a relatively large population of Muslim immigrants. I think Belgium actually is a good example, where you have a relatively large Muslim community living in a relatively homogenous country with high GDP.

How does ISIS use attacks like this to gain recruits in countries like Belgium?

Attacks against Western countries lead to the alienation of the Muslim community. The local community will start suspecting Muslim immigrants, and there will be less possibilities for Muslim immigrants and hate crimes against Muslim minorities. And that plays right into the hands of ISIS, in terms of creating radicalization and alienation. Also once you start the process and you have a few foreign fighters that join ISIS, even if they're in Iraq or Syria, it's easier for them to get new recruits in their home country, and to radicalize them and lead them to commit these types of attacks. Also, it's easier for them to return to Belgium with a Belgian passport and create network cells that will later on commit terror attacks in Belgium. That's pretty much the ISIS model for attacks against Western countries.

How does this fit into their larger strategy?

According to our research—not on ISIS but on al-Qaeda—they oppose assimilation of Muslims to the West, and committing terror attacks in the West is a very successful way to stop the assimilation of Muslims to create more alienation and more radicalization, and a clash of societies or civilizations in a way—where Muslims don't assimilate to Western countries, and Westerners actually suspect Muslims now. It's a circle of violence that feeds itself.

And that same strategy of cultivating alienation and radicalization could be applied to ISIS as well?

An ongoing project with Benmelech, where we actually focus on ISIS and what correlates with the number of ISIS recruits at the country level, [shows that] these type of homogenous countries with high GDP and a sizable Muslim community are things that are very strongly correlated with ISIS recruits, so it's not necessarily the lack of economic opportunity, but it's alienation and the unwillingness to assimilate.

And the anti-immigrant sentiments that arise after attacks like this are part of the goal?

Of course. We're going to see, now, anti-immigrant rhetoric, and then that will also create antagonism against the large society by Muslims in Europe. The general population distrusts Muslims, and Muslims feel like they're being discriminated against, they don't have the same opportunities as the rest of the individuals in society; they feel more identification with their in-group—with the Muslims that are suffering from these types of behavior—and that creates radicalization, to terror cells, and to more terror attacks.

With this cycle of violence in mind, how should the world respond to attacks like this?

That's a difficult question. I think, first of all, the world should try to put more of an effort in fighting radicalization by Muslims and Muslim clerics in the West. I know that this is a problem in terms of freedom of speech, but trying to convey a more open minded and tolerant message to Muslims, and to try to get the Muslim community to adopt Western values of tolerance to other religions, and to collaborate with the authorities. That would be a first step in the right direction, trying to obtain the cooperation of the majority of the Muslim community, in order to eradicate the radicals that are willing to commit attacks in the name of Islam. Try to engage the overall Muslim community against Muslim radicals. I think that would be the first step.