By Alessandro Regio
President Donald Trump announced last Sunday morning that with ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death and the United States’ withdrawal from Northern Syria, the terror organization had been completely eradicated. ISIS’s threat capacities, even as destroyed as it may be now in terms of leadership and territory, are being heavily distorted by the afterglow of the achievement of eliminating Al-Baghdadi. However, due to the U.S. pullout, the killing of Al-Baghdadi, and the overtly braggadocio nature of the reaction to Al-Baghdadi’s death, we’re likely to see a resurgence in ISIS-inspired attacks in Europe.
Reinvigorating ISIS Manpower
The Trump administration’s pull-out of U.S. forces from Syria’s northern border with Turkey created a slew of possible policy implications motivated by the vacuum left by American power projection in the region. Israel has warned that the pull-out will further destabilize the entire region, while the military community in the U.S. has warned of the precedent that giving up on Kurdish allies could do to future American military cooperation abroad. Iraqi instability across the border also fuels an ISIS resurgence. Yet, the strongest and most pressing concern revolves around the possibility of an ISIS resurgence and its effects on international security.
Much has been made about the possibility of a second refugee crisis happening on Europe’s borders, but the most existential threat facing Europe according to popular assessment is ISIS militants finding their way out of Northern Syria and into the EU proper. This threat, however, is misguided, as a previously emaciated ISIS would more likely look to rebuild ties and cells in Europe to trigger more ISIS-inspired attacks than to plan long-range attacks on the EU.
It is easy to see the natural inclination to call a surge of freed ISIS associates in Northern Syria as being possible actors to carry out an attack to nearby Europe. Just recently, ISIS fighters jailed in Northern Syria escaped their internment after Turkish bombings disrupted Kurdish security forces. At the same time, President Trump all but encouraged those ISIS members to head for European territory last week.
Still, one must take a long look at the possibilities of ISIS-associated individuals traveling from Syria to target countries like France and Germany. There are plenty of countries along transit routes that are quite interested in and capable of preventing ISIS members from passing through or establishing footholds. The ubiquitous but wholesomely wrong assumption that refugees from Syria were responsible for the string of attacks in Europe from 2014 to 2018 also shows that ISIS does not just send foot soldiers to carry out its attacks in Europe.
Fueling the Fire
Instead, ISIS would be more likely to use newly released manpower to increase its propaganda attacks. Details on the prisoners currently in northern Syria on the verge of release are murky, but there is reason to believe that the makeup of the prisoner-base is heterogenous. This means there is a good chance that mid-level members who specialize in systems and communications may be amongst ISIS prisoners in northern Syria.
ISIS’s degradation in the last two years was not just due to a loss of territory but also a loss of membership to imprisonment. Regaining members who can not only fight, but also increase ISIS’s propaganda efforts, may very well revitalize radicalization in Europe. Considering that most of those same attackers in Europe between 2014 and 2018 were indeed radicalized nationals, it makes more sense to focus on that threat this time around.
With Al-Baghdadi now dead, it is more than likely that his death, though ultimately destabilizing for ISIS leadership, has the potential of being an enormous propaganda tool for ISIS the same way that Osama bin Laden’s death was for Al Qaeda. Revenge is a powerful motivator of Jihadi terror, so retaliation is to be expected; in ISIS’s case, considering its modus operandi for creating lone-wolf terrorists, it is expected that ISIS will lean on that expertise rather than reinvent the wheel.
Though the U.S. carried out the strike, Europe likely remains the more tempting target for ISIS influence and radicalization for multiple reasons. First, ISIS radicalization has been more successful in Europe than in the US in the past. Second, ISIS may anticipate EU counter-terror efforts to be less homologous than a single, unified American one. Lastly, according to a UN report, ISIS leaders are inherently aware of the political divisiveness within EU members states that can be fanned with a successful attack.
What the EU Can do Moving Forward
The response to this manifestation of the renewed ISIS threat on the part of EU member states has been less-than-tepid. France and Germany both called for a meeting of the United Nations Security Council, while France independently called for a meeting of anti-ISIS coalition forces. The EU as a whole, however, has been much more quiet on the matter, choosing to focus instead on the humanitarian crisis now facing the Kurdish population in Northern Syria.
EU defense has, historically, fallen to the member states and NATO. However, with the advent of more serious EU defense conversations and the slow but steady normalization of EU-level cooperation for counter-terrorism efforts, it should fall to EU Foreign Affairs chief Josep Borrell’s leadership to take this threat of increased radicalization head-on. This could take the form of bolstering cross-EU counterterrorism cooperation using EU institutions, by employing either Article 222 of the Treaty of the European Union, the terrorism solidarity article, or Article 42.7, the mutual defense clause of EU member states. France used it in 2015 to respond to the November ISIS attacks, there is no barrier to using the article proactively.
Alternatively, the EU may want to employ its more diplomatic tools to not only slow an oncoming humanitarian crisis caused by Turkish incursions on its Syrian border. Doing so may dull ISIS’s radicalization argument which invokes Europe’s colonial past. Ultimately, EU member states should ready themselves to learn from not only their past mistakes but also their current successes in limiting terror attacks, successes such as Italy’s robust surveillance program or Baltic countries’ terror attack simulations and trainings.
To avoid doing so would not only be a political gamble on his part against the outcome of the “next attack,” should it happen, but also a potential step back in the greater scheme of European defense. ISIS is going to be strengthened by this pullout, and even though there is now a scramble to be the leader of the caliphate, its communications officers will instead be hard at work and potentially reinforced. Prudence dictates that preparations should be taken to counter whatever radicalization efforts are reborn due to this resurgence, regardless of its scale.
Alessandro Regio has a Master of Arts in International Policy Studies from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. He is an international security analyst based in Washington, DC.