The blurred battle lines between Baghdad and Brussels

The Brussels attacks may be distant from the front lines, but the atrocities serve ISIL’s war in Iraq and Syria.

A sign reads "Why?" in English, French and Flemish behind candles and flowers near the Maelbeek metro station, in Brussels [AP]
A sign in English, French and Flemish behind candles and flowers near the Maelbeek metro station, in Brussels [AP]

With the Brussels explosions, following on from the Paris and San Bernardino attacks of 2015, ISIL has projected its terror beyond the Middle East.

After Paris, it seemed paradoxical that ISIL, also known as ISIS, would take part in transnational attacks in light of their differences with Al-Qaida.

Al-Qaida calls itself a tandhim or “organisation”, a vanguard to inspire and galvanise, through its use of spectacular acts of violence, a global Muslim awakening.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group, however, envisioned itself as a dawla, or “state”, seeking to conquer territory and establish a government.

Yet, how do these attacks in Europe and the United States, whether ordered by ISIL’s leadership or conducted by independently inspired, autonomous cells, serve ISIL’s strategy of maintaining its territory in Iraq and Syria?

Why was Brussels attacked?

The fact that ISIL has been implicated in three terrorist attacks in Europe and the US show that the viability of the so-called Islamic State has become contingent on these distant attacks.

Brussels and ISIL’s local strategy

The make-up of ISIL’s leadership indicates it would have little interest in ordering or inspiring European or US attacks. For Al-Qaida’s leaders such attacks are their life mission.

However, the majority of ISIL’s leaders are Iraqi Arab and Turkmen Sunnis, mostly high-ranking officers of Saddam Hussein’s military and intelligence services. For them to rise in the ranks, they would have professed the secularism of the Baath party.

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After 2003, these Saddam-era figures involved in the Iraqi insurgency most probably calculated that restoring their former control of all of Iraq was impossible. However, while most insurgent groups collapsed after the 2008 “surge”, ISIL survived, even after the death of its founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006.

An ISIL fighter holds an ISIL flag and a weapon on a street in the city of Mosul, Iraq [REUTERS]
An ISIL fighter holds an ISIL flag and a weapon on a street in the city of Mosul, Iraq [REUTERS]

The old guard from the Saddam-era must have viewed ISIL as the most effective structure to reassert their power in areas in which they had originated, such as Mosul, Ramadi, Fallujah, and Tikrit.

While this Iraqi cadre lost control over the nation, through ISIL they could capture a relatively large Arab Sunni heartland straddling the Syrian-Iraqi border, which now corresponds to ISIL’s current borders.

These former Baathists today are either genuine “reborn Muslims”, becoming more religious during Saddam’s faith campaign of the 1990s, or during their incarceration in Camp Bucca during the insurgency, or just cynically adopting the Salafi veneer of ISIL.

Regardless, they launched a quiet coup of ISIL’s leadership. Their local priority, securing Iraqi and Syrian territory, would have differed from the global jihadist agenda of Al-Qaida, explaining their eventual split in 2014.

The Brussels attacks further demonstrate the irrelevance of ISIL's rival, Al-Qaida, which has not conducted an attack in Europe since the January 2014 Paris Charlie Hebdo attacks.


The anti-Shia element embedded in ISIL’s ideology served for them as a potent mobiliser of both local Sunni communities and Sunnis living beyond Iraq and Syria.

ISIL developed a transnational Sunni wing, while its leadership remained primarily Iraq, taking advantage of a devoted religious following among foreign fighters from Europe and the Middle East. The latter shared the local agenda of ISIL’s Iraqi leaders, depriving Shia governments in Baghdad, and later Damascus, of territory.

ISIL’s transnational Sunni fighters from Europe and the greater Islamic World that are its most effective shock troops, willing to die in suicide bombings on the front lines against Iraqi forces, or its Islamist rivals such as the Al-Qaida-affiliated Syrian al-Nusra Front, which ISIL is combating for territory in Syria.

Striking the heart of the West

The Brussels attacks further demonstrate the irrelevance of ISIL’s rival, Al-Qaida, which has not conducted an attack in Europe since the January 2014 Paris Charlie Hebdo attacks.

Furthermore, it aids ISIL in weaning away current and potential foreign fighters away from al-Nusra Front.

ISIL needs to inspire these foreign fighters embedded in its ranks, who have lost territory recently. Attacks in Europe, redolent with symbolism of striking the heart of the West, providing more outrage in the West and more attention.

Brussels attacks: EU’s terror problem will get worse

This dynamic most likely provides a stronger morale boost to ISIL ranks than attacks within the greater Middle East, such as the attacks in Turkey a few days before that generated little media coverage or outrage.


ISIL has demonstrated its power of reconfiguring the identities of Muslims to repudiate their national allegiance to France and Belgium and strike out against their “former” nations through acts of terrorism.

In San Bernardino, the act of repudiation was more intimate than rejecting their nation, when the two attackers killed fellow co-workers, and abandoned their infant child to conduct their killing spree.

ISIL can now retaliate against the US and European constituents of the anti-ISIL coalition.

The Brussels attack allowed ISIL a transnational display of asymmetric power against Western states and the global order, by demonstrating that if coalition air power can target ISIL’s capital in Raqqa and its environs, it can target Western capitals or its suburbs as well.

Ibrahim al-Marashi is an assistant professor at the Department of History, California State University, San Marcos. He is the co-author of “Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History”.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.