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Brussels Attacks Highlight ISIS' Focus On Soft Targets


The targets of today's attacks in Brussels - an airport, a subway station - possessed no special symbolism in the conflict with ISIS. They bring to mind the words of a French jihadist quoted in The New York Times this past weekend. His advice last March - "stop looking for specific targets. Hit everyone and everything."

Well, Christine Fair teaches in the security studies program at Georgetown University, and she joins us now. Welcome to the program.

CHRISTINE FAIR: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: And what does the choice of targets in Brussels say to you?

FAIR: In the context of ISIS, what this actually reflects is that the U.S. and its allies have actually been pretty successful on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State, as the name implies, requires it has to have a state. And we've been pretty good at denying it access to new territory and even restricting the territory that it currently operates on.

ISIS is telling those people in Europe that are interested in coming to Iraq and Syria to stay put and to attack targets in Europe. Brussels is interesting for a number reasons. One - the state has really ceased to function like a state for a very long time. It went through a period of 20 months where it had no parliament. You have a vibrant gun trade and you also have the most lax gun laws in Europe.

SIEGEL: But once you, if you're a jihadist, once you narrow the target choices to places in Belgium, an airport or a subway is very different from the Jewish Museum, which was attacked not too long ago, or in France, say, the satirical paper Charlie Hebdo. Everyone in Brussels was a potential target for them.

FAIR: Well, of course, airports and mass transit are going to be high-value targets. It does have a restricting effect on commerce. People don't want to fly. And then the other thing that - and I think this is the other point of ISIS - is that there is a very large debate right now in the EU about asylum and about immigration.

And I think the expectation is that countries are going to become even more repressive towards Muslims. And this is, of course, going to advance the very cause that ISIS wants, which is to alienate more Muslims and to turn them towards ISIS's cause.

SIEGEL: I want you to talk a little bit about the challenge this poses to law enforcement. The other day, I drove past the site of the big AIPAC conference in Washington for the pro-Israel group. Police and police cars everywhere in the vicinity. You can't do that at every airport terminal. You can't do that at every metro station. What do you do if you feel that that kind of threat is out there?

FAIR: In some odd ways, this does speak to how difficult we've made harder targets to be. And so in the literature we call this target substitution. And, of course, the interesting thing is if you go back and you look at terrorism for decades, this has long been the preferred kind of targets for terrorist organizations, has been soft targets, high impact, very difficult to prevent, very hard to secure.

SIEGEL: It's hard to ignore that just a few days ago the Belgians arrested Salah Abdeslam, the suspect they'd been pursuing since the Paris attacks. Many things were found. It seemed as though they were cracking a network and then along comes this, which many assume had been planned before Abdeslam's arrest.

I'm just curious what your reaction to that is. Is it that perhaps there are many more people out there plotting in Belgium than the authorities had conceivably been aware of, that they must have missed something? What's your sense?

FAIR: Well, as I said, you know, a number of minutes ago, Belgium has a lot of problems. It has really, in the words of one of my colleagues in Canadian intelligence of all things says, it's really stopped functioning as a state. As I said, it has very lax gun laws. It has a very vibrant gun market. And you have - you know, there's no nicer way to put it - you have a lot of anti-Muslim hostility. I've always been amazed when I go to Belgium the things that, for example, taxi drivers will tell you about the Muslim population.

So you have very real issues of integration and you have a state that's not functioning as a state should act. And so I suspect that unless Belgium gets its act together, it's going to be a soft target. It's going to be sort of like the underbelly of Europe.

SIEGEL: Professor Fair, thanks for talking with us today.

FAIR: All right, thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Christine Fair, associate professor at Georgetown University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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