This may not seem like a good time to argue that Isil’s terror campaign in the West has been a failure.
As of this morning, 34 people are dead and hundreds more injured after Tuesday’s bombs in Brussels, and there are fears that more terrorists are about to strike. The Belgian capital’s authorities, meanwhile, has advised the world to avoid “non-essential travel” to their city, a level of caution normally only applied to places like Baghdad.
Yet if we consider the situation in perspective – something I accept may be hard if you were in Brussels airport on Tuesday – many of the signs are that Isil’s campaign to bring slaughter to Europe is already on the wane.
Tuesday’s attackers were not some entirely new outfit, but part of the same network that carried out the Paris attacks, and which was gradually being taken down by police until last week.
The carnage at the airport came just four days after one of their main players – Paris attacks “fixer” Salah Abdeslam – was arrested in Brussels, since when he has co-operated with police, according to his lawyer. Which means his accomplices probably felt they had to act quickly before they too were tracked down.
No time for a fancy, Mumbai-style mass attack, with lots of gunmen running around all dressed in black. No clever, co-ordinated messaging. Instead, just a routine bombing of a couple of transport hubs – which, by Islamic State standards, counts as a routine days’ work, not a terrorist spectacular. Not great for an organisation that prides itself as the world’s most diabolically innovative urban guerrilla force.
Moreover, if Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (Isil) strategy for the West was really working by now, it would not still be relying on the likes Abdeslam and his network to do their bidding. These, after all, are its top agents – men who have often spent years as radicals, with direct combat experience honed in Syria and Iraq.
But what Isil really wanted to do was encourage an uprising of “lone wolves”, so that the war on “Crusaders” could be waged by the enthusiastic amateur as well as the seasoned professional.
This punk-style “anyone can be a terrorist” philosophy was arguably one of Isil’s scariest moves, designed to make folks in a multi-cultural society worry about their Muslim neighbour next door, the man standing next to them on the Tube, or the people at the mosque down the road.
And when it worked, such as in the meat-cleaver murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich, the results were all the more shocking – not least because it was proof that you didn’t need fancy weaponry or high explosives to become an Isil footsoldier. Instead, all you required was a few kitchen implements and some basic command of street thuggery.
Yet since Drummer Rigby’s murder three years ago, the number of lone wolf attacks has actually been vanishingly small. Yes, there have been gun attacks and knifings here and there – such the one at Leytonstone Tubelast December. But given the millions of Muslims that Isil is trying to reach out to in America and Europe, the take-up rate is not very high.
Remember, also, that Isil has been at the absolute height of its powers for most of the last two years, riding high on its creation of the “Caliphate”after seizing Mosul in June 2014. If it can’t inspire people to act in great numbers now, it probably never will.
And besides, with every passing week, its bubble is bursting, as coalition airstrikes dent its sense of military invincibility, and as Isil defectors speak of the disappointing realities on the ground.
Ah, but what about when all those Isil supporters with British passports return home? Won’t there be havoc from so-called “blowback”? A degree of that, yes, is a near-inevitability – but it may be nowhere near as bad as feared.
According to the terrorism experts I speak to, many of the jihadis who have flocked to Mosul and Raqqa in the last couple of years will prove to be more tourist than terrorist. These people, after all, went there to be part of a gang, not to act all alone. Take them out of the “Caliphate” and its group-think, put them back on their own in cold grey Britain, and they may be less like lone wolves, and more like sheep lost from their herd.
For one thing, weapons are not in easy reach, and the security services will be on their tail. And for another, relatively few people – especially bandwagon jumpers – want to die for a cause that may no longer seem like a winning team. Michael Knights, an expert on Iraq, reckons we could certainly see a spike in blow-back terror cases of at least 20 per cent, but that is a far cry from some of the more apocalyptic predictions.
Besides, for every additional Woolwich style atrocity that is carried out, the impact inevitably diminishes, just as it does with “school shooters” in America.
True, that does not stop random gun crazies in America continuing to carry out their acts of horror. But nobody would consider them an “existential threat” – and nor, by the same token, is Isil.