Brussels Blasts Show ISIS With Its Back to the Wall

A closed-circuit TV image from Zaventem airport surveillance cameras, made available by Belgian police, shows what officials believe are suspects in the Brussels bombings on March 22. We can expect more attacks like those on the Belgian city as ISIS continues to decline and lash out, the author writes. CCTV/Handout via Reuters

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

The Islamic State militant group (ISIS) was quick to claim responsibility for bombings at two major transportation hubs in Brussels on Tuesday that left at least 30 people dead.

With attacks like these, the group is seeking to sow fear among its enemies, maintain itself as the forerunner in the global jihadi brand war with Al-Qaeda and maintain the veneer of organizational vigor and vitalism it established with its stunning victories in Syria and Iraq in 2014.

But while the Brussels bombings may have wreaked carnage, they have failed to replicate ISIS's triumphalism of 2014. The attacks are in reality indicative of the group's growing decline and desperation.

Motivations behind the bombings are likely to be found in the tactical and strategic strains currently being exerted on ISIS and its wider global network. The recent arrest of Paris terror attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam in Brussels was likely seen as an existential threat to ISIS-linked cells inside Belgium. The perception of a breach may have driven planners to accelerate operations, for fear that the European authorities could employ critical intelligence gained from Abdeslam to disrupt future attacks.

Such a ticking clock may explain why the terrorists opted for a crude dual-bombing in place of a more sophisticated and coordinated hybrid assault similar to that undertaken in Paris in late 2015.

At a broader level, the attacks may also be linked to the immense pressures placed on ISIS by an array of local, regional and international actors. Collectively, the actions of Russia, the U.S., Iran, Turkey and many other players have translated into a loss of around one-quarter of the group's territory over the past year.

Kurdish and Iranian-backed Shiite militias have, in many cases, actively routed the group from its territorial holdings over the past year. Thanks to Iranian and Russian backing, the Syrian army is also exerting increasing pressure on ISIS. The Syrian army has made recent advances in areas such as Tabqa and Palmyra, signaling a significant shift in the regime's willingness and capacity to combat ISIS.

All this has served to dispel much of ISIS's mystique and the viability of its mission. In 2014, the group's emir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, could point to ISIS's many and exceptional successes to make the case that it was clearly on track to establishing its Islamist utopian ideal. Such apparent evidence in turn allowed the group to garner legitimacy and support and recruit new members.

Today, such successes are few and far between. Some are now questioning whether ISIS will even be a significant insurgent player in the Syrian conflict by 2017.

Terror, Weakness and Desperation

As ISIS stunned the world with its blitzkrieg across eastern Iraq in 2014, there was little need for it to conduct attacks outside the Middle East. Its apparent success and superiority over its local rivals were more than enough to draw large amounts of external support and recruits for its cause.

But as ISIS has weakened over the past two years, its popularity and freedom of action have become increasingly constrained within its immediate area. In such circumstances, insurgent groups often seek to strike outside their own borders as both a punitive measure and a demonstration of strength to potential supporters.

This was precisely Somalian militant group Al-Shabab's logic when it assaulted Kenya's Westgate mall in 2013. This story echoes much of what ISIS is experiencing now.

Under increasing pressure from an African Union occupation force that included large contingents from the Kenyan army, Al-Shabab found itself pushed from its seat of power in Mogadishu into Somalia's south. Unable to mount a serious offensive on the occupiers, the group opted to strike in Kenya itself. This sent a message that Kenya could not expect to safeguard its own territory as long as it engaged in such perilous dalliances abroad.

As pressure has grown on ISIS, it has become increasingly inclined toward this strategy—from Saudi Arabia to Lebanon to Turkey to France and now Belgium.

We can only expect more such attacks as ISIS continues to decline and lash out. Some will invariably foil the various security establishments arrayed against it.

But it is crucial to remember that this type of violence is aimed at sowing discord, chaos, suspicion and divisiveness among the multicultural societies it targets. In doing so, ISIS is seeking to create the conditions in which its message finds more willing supporters among those disenfranchised by such division.

Ben Rich is unit coordinator in politics at the University of New England.