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Defeating ISIS Requires Maximum International Cooperation

Posted March 23rd, 2016 at 1:21 pm (UTC-4)
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By Barbara Slavin

In the aftermath of the terrible bombings in Brussels, the knee-jerk reaction among some American politicians is to close borders to immigrants and hit harder at the Middle Eastern enclaves of the Islamic State.

Thinking aloud as his wont on Twitter, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump vowed, “This madness must be stopped and I will stop it.”
As usual, Trump was fuzzy about the details except to say that “political correctness” had somehow been responsible, that Muslims should be stopped from entering the US and that President Barack Obama should cut short a historic trip to Cuba and return to Washington to manage the U.S. response.
A day earlier, Trump gave his most extended comments yet  about foreign policy to The Washington Post Editorial Board. Beyond railing against free trade, Trump questioned the very pillars of the Western alliance, including American leadership of the North American Treaty Organization.
Police guard the central train station in Brussels following Tuesday's bomb attacks in Belgium on March 23, 2016. (Reuters)

Police guard the central train station in Brussels following Tuesday’s bomb attacks in Belgium on March 23, 2016. (Reuters)

The last thing the United States should do at a moment of such peril to Europe is withdraw from treaty commitments to democratic allies. Trump’s approach of building higher walls around the United States and intensifying bombing of ISIS in Syria and Iraq will do little to address the root causes of terrorism.  

That policy will likely make the situation worse.

Meanwhile, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Trump’s closest competitor for the Republican presidential nomination, called for U.S. law enforcement “to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized” – a sure formula for deepening resentment and boosting ISIS recruitment.

As this columnist argued in the aftermath of last year’s Paris attacks, there are no simple formulas for defeating an ideology that convinces its adherents that suicide and murder are a path to salvation. The civilized world needs to unite against this scourge and combat it in multiple ways that deter recruitment while protecting the rest of us to the extent possible.
Rather than harden our hearts to desperate refugees, Americans need to share with Europeans – and Europeans need to share with each other – more information about terrorist suspects. That means cultivating more sources within Muslim communities convinced they have a stake in defeating extremism to secure a future for themselves and their children within the West.
While there have been cases of false Syrian passports used by migrants, the overwhelming number of terrorists in both Europe and the United States have been natives. Some may have been alienated by discrimination; many appear to have criminal records and were radicalized on the Internet or in prison.
Authorities on Wednesday disclosed that two Belgian nationals with criminal records, Khalid and Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, were responsible for the attacks on the Brussels airport and metro station.
They were similar in profile to the Abdeslam family involved in the Paris massacre: Salah Abdeslam was finally caught by Belgian authorities last week hiding in his old Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek. His arrest, which may have led in hindsight, to a false sense of triumph among security authorities, may have been the trigger for Tuesday’s attacks.

Europe urgently needs to assemble a fuller database of suspected militants, to improve cooperation among security and intelligence services and within European Union member states.

As Washington Post columnist David Ignatius noted the EU “needs to reinvent its security system. It needs to break the stovepipes that prevent sharing information, enforcing borders and protecting citizens,” much as the United States had to do following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

A common database could help apprehend ISIS fighters of Western origin who travel to the Middle East for training and then return to home. Nearly 40,000 foreign fighters are believed to have gone to Iraq and Syria since 2012, including 5,000 from Europe and nearly 500 from Belgium, the largest number per capita.

In the aftermath of the Brussels attacks, President Obama tacked on a few words about the tragedy to a major speech he gave in Cuba on the first visit of a US president to the island nation in 88 years.

“We will do whatever is necessary to support our friend and ally, Belgium, in bringing to justice those who are responsible,” Obama said. Unlike Trump and Cruz, the president said the attacks were “yet another reminder that the world must unite, we must be together, regardless of nationality, or race, or faith, in fighting against the scourge of terrorism.”

President Barack Obama and National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice (L) talk to Homeland Security for updates on the terrorist attack in Brussels, Belgium, in this official White House handout photo taken in Havana, Cuba on March 22, 2016. (Reuters)

President Barack Obama and National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice (L) talk to Homeland Security for updates on the terrorist attack in Brussels, Belgium, in this official White House handout photo taken in Havana, Cuba on March 22, 2016. (Reuters)

While Obama has used force to kill extremists around the world, the heart of his foreign policy is engagement with former adversaries such as Iran and Cuba. The United States has profound differences with these countries over issues including human rights—which the president underlined in his speech in Havana broadcast live to the Cuban people—but can cooperate on matters of grave national and international concern.

Cuba, with extensive contacts in Africa from the days when it sent troops to help insurgencies and doctors to treat the sick, may have intelligence about Muslim and other extremists there. Cuba also has an extensive network in Latin America that might be of use to combat a global jihadist threat.

Rather than retreating from the world, the next American president must work even harder to build ties to former foes and to reinforce relations with traditional allies. Bombing and bigotry cannot replace the hard work of diplomats and intelligence professionals in keeping us as safe as possible.

Barbara Slavin is Acting Director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

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