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From Bosnia to Brussels, Europe fumbles

Click photo to download. Caption: A gathering in Brussels on March 22, the day that terror attacks killed 31 people in that city. Credit: Miguel Discart via Wikimedia Commons.
Click photo to download. Caption: A gathering in Brussels on March 22, the day that terror attacks killed 31 people in that city. Credit: Miguel Discart via Wikimedia Commons.

By Ben Cohen/

The former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic finally received a modicum of justice this week, when a United Nations court in The Hague sentenced him to 40 years in prison for his monstrous war crimes. The 10 charges Karadzic was convicted of included his role in the massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica in July 1995. Those who remember that horrific event will recall that, along with the disgraceful buck-passing that stained the European response to that genocide, there was a more generalized disbelief that such a vicious war was actually raging on the continent just 50 years after the liberation of Auschwitz.

Two decades later, Europe is again being reminded of the illusion of a permanent peace. In the same week that judgment was passed on Karadzic for his crimes in a European war of the recent past, the war of the European present came once again to Brussels, where Islamic State terrorists murdered 31 people and injured scores more in a single hour of atrocities. (I say “once again” because in 2014, the Jewish museum in the Belgian capital was targeted by an Islamist gunman, killing four innocents.)

There are, of course, major differences between the Balkan wars of the 1990s and the current battle. Hundreds of thousands of people across several nationalities died in the Balkans, whereas the number murdered by Islamist terrorists in Europe is thankfully far short of that. During the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession, nationalist extremists in Serbia were fighting for lebensraum, and emptying the territories they conquered of the non-Serb populations; it was a brutal war, but a local one. The Islamists have declared war on their enemies in the Middle East and upon western civilization itself; this brutal war is both local, as demonstrated by the continuing slaughter in Syria, and global, as the Brussels attacks tragically remind us.

What both conflicts have in common, though, is the powerful sense of an international leadership that is adrift. War crimes and ethnic cleansing enveloped the Balkans for eight years before Tony Blair and Bill Clinton took military action against the Serbs in Kosovo. The current jihad has lasted much longer, and the fear that no end is in sight is compounded by the knowledge that this enemy is more dangerous, more sophisticated, and more wedded to the hatred of liberal freedoms than the Serb paramilitaries ever were.

At least French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has offered a cogent, if incomplete, diagnosis of the nature of the problem. Europe, Valls declared in the wake of the Brussels massacre, is enmeshed in “another war, because terrorism, this terrorism, Islamic State, wants to destroy us, wants to destroy men and women, but it also wants to destroy our way of life. The attacks in Paris, like in Brussels, they target people sitting on cafe terraces, catching airplanes, getting the metro.”

Valls also criticized Europe’s blindness to how “the progression of extremist ideas, Salafism” has penetrated “neighborhoods which, through a combination of drug trafficking and radical Islamism, perverted…a part of the youth.”

Those youths include the approximately 5,000 Islamic State volunteers that have traveled to the Middle East, along with up to 600 terrorists located in Europe and organized in cells with a degree of independence, meaning that they can decide among themselves when, where, and how to launch an attack. As the Associated Press pointed out, this “network of agile and semiautonomous cells shows the reach of the extremist group in Europe even as it loses ground in Syria and Iraq.”

Perhaps because of its fragile position in the Middle East, Islamic State has now invested more resources in its war against neighboring Europe. As one security official explained in the same Associated Press article, “Now the strategy has changed. Special units have been set up. The training is longer. And the objective appears to no longer be killing as many people as possible but rather to have as many terror operations as possible, so the enemy is forced to spend more money or more in manpower. It’s more about the rhythm of terror operations now.”

The aim of the jihadis is to make those rhythms as regular as possible, with as little trace as possible. In this way, they believe, they will create a “new normal” for Europe, where fear reigns, social polarization deepens, and law enforcement is marked by failure—even if one cell is busted, there are dozens of others that will remain operational, thereby enabling every arrest to be followed by another bombing.

As for the jihadis, their main challenge is to keep a few steps ahead of the authorities, much as they have done until now. Some European countries have better records in combating terror than others, but the continent’s porous borders mean that one state’s mistakes will rebound on the states around it. For example, Salah Abdeslam, who directed the Paris bombings last November and whose arrest by Belgian police came a few days before the Brussels attacks, was a resident of Belgium.

Belgium continues to be a source of worry for security officials because of what seem like elementary errors by its law enforcement authorities. One of the suicide bombers at the Brussels airport, Belgian citizen Najim Laachraoui, was discovered to have been involved in the Paris attacks after his DNA was found on explosives used in the outrages. Since that time, he operated undetected in Belgium, to the point where he was able to successfully carry out a “martyrdom operation.” And that’s one of several glaring examples.

Still, the temptation to resort to Donald Trump-style hyperbole in these situations has to be resisted, because it will lead us nowhere. One should forget about unfeasible (not to mention morally repugnant) suggestions, like banning Muslims within our borders, because right now Europe can’t even cope with what’s feasible. For one thing, the external borders of Turkey, a NATO member state, are completely insecure. For another, according to French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, “several thousand” people are being monitored by intelligence services, but with every terror attack, the effectiveness of that monitoring is going to be treated with greater skepticism.

If Western leaders want to be creative, then they have no choice but to tackle the main source of the problem, which lies in the civil war in Syria. Though an ostensible enemy of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Islamic State has been left to its own devices by the dictator and his Iranian and Russian allies. And here we get to something that France’s Valls did not say in his reflections on Brussels, but which is essential for grasping today’s complexity: while radical ideology is a constant source of inspiration for jihad, the ongoing Syrian war has further enabled it in operational terms.

But just as in Bosnia 20 years ago, there is a terrible reluctance to take ownership of this issue. In the Bosnian case, that was in part because no country outside the Balkans was, by Syrian standards, dramatically impacted by the war there. Yet Syria’s war, which has generated internal human suffering far greater in scale than even the Balkans, has become a war on Europe’s streets as well. Only this time round, America is not going to organize the counterattack.

Ben Cohen, senior editor of & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).

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