It didn’t take the Brussels bombings to convince most experts that the terrorist threat to Europe is greater than that to the U.S. homeland. The November 2015 Paris attacks, the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo shootings, the 2014 Jewish Museum of Belgium shootings, and other attacks and plots in Europe indicate that Europe’s jihadist terrorism problem is greater than America’s in both frequency and intensity.
No one factor explains the difference, but I’d compare the danger along several dimensions. The first to consider is simply the goals of the Islamic State, though this is ultimately unsatisfying. As I’ve argued elsewhere, in contrast to Al Qaeda’s anti-U.S. emphasis, Islamic State leaders have primarily focused on their state-building project in Iraq and Syria. Developing provinces in the Muslim world is another goal. Although most Islamic State attacks still strike regional targets, attacks on the West have risen on the priority list, particularly after the United States and allies in Europe began an air campaign against the Islamic State. But given that the United States is the leader of the coalition (and supplying the vast majority of the strike assets), Washington should be at least a rung above Europe on the enemies list. And within Europe, Belgium should be relatively low on the ladder given its minimal contribution to the anti-Islamic State campaign, even discontinuing military operations late last year. So looking solely at the Islamic State’s enemies list is not enough.
It’s more useful, then, to focus on how easily the Islamic State can strike Europe in comparison to the United States. And here the contrast is clear. Over 5,000 Europeans have gone to fight in Iraq and Syria; less than 200 Americans have joined the struggle. Europe also shares a land border with Iraq and Syria via Turkey and is logistically far more accessible for Islamic State fighters to go back and forth, while the United States is protected by two great oceans. Even putting foreign fighters and simple geography aside, Muslim communities in Europe have more radicalized individuals who stay in Europe, and thus a greater native pool of recruits for lone wolf and other attacks.
Beyond foreign fighters and radicalized stay-at-homes, the integration challenge is far greater in Europe. The specifics vary by country, but almost everywhere, the situation is bad. Contrary to conventional wisdom, there is no direct correlation between education or poverty and terrorism. However, when such problems are rampant within one community, they suggest a problem that is apparent to anyone who walks a Muslim neighborhood in a major European city: a lack of integration. Many European Muslims often feel alienated from the broader non-Muslim population and do not feel like true citizens. Trust in the police and security services is particularly low. Some European states embrace secularism and see visible symbols of the practice of Islam as a threat to this identity, and as jihadist terrorism emerged as a leading issue after 9/11, critics began to link Muslim identity to violence. Each terrorist attack makes this problem worse, with chauvinistic voices denouncing Muslims, making the community draw even more inward. And more security service raids on Muslim communities only increase their suspicions.
Many European Muslims often feel alienated from the broader non-Muslim population and do not feel like true citizens.
American Muslims, in contrast, are far better integrated and have regularly cooperated with the FBI, foiling many terrorist plots. The vitriol that has accompanied the 2016 U.S. election – and the embrace of this rhetoric among many voters – risks jeopardizing this robust cooperation, alienating American Muslims and making them less likely to work with the police and the FBI.
Terrorists can move freely across Europe’s open borders, but security services cannot – in this way the terrorists are far more “European” than the security services that fight them. The Paris and Brussels attacks revealed gaping holes in Europe’s counterterrorism net: lists of suspects are often not shared, and different countries use different systems of transliteration, hindering basic data searches. Even for countries with effective security services like France, vulnerability is still high, as less proficient neighbors like Belgium create de facto havens where terrorists face far less pressure. In general, I’ve been on the side of those arguing that the terrorist threat to the West, while real, is manageable, but I also warned in 2014 that “The problem is particularly acute for small countries like Belgium that have many foreign fighters, but small security services and little history of militancy, forcing them to play catch-up even as the problem escalates.” As long as European security performance is uneven, strong countries will be vulnerable to mistakes or weak efforts by those European countries unwilling to dedicate the necessary resources or establish a proper counterterrorism framework.
So, on balance, the United States is likely to remain safer than its European counterparts, if only because it is simply far easier for the Islamic State to attack Europe. However, if the above factors do explain much of the difference, Europe should focus not just on improving security services, but also on better integrating its Muslim communities. An integrated Muslim community would not only reduce the number of those radicalized, but also make it more likely for the police and intelligence services to discover terrorists and stop them before they strike again.