Skip to main content

Stephanie Carvin is an assistant professor of international relations at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, and a former national security analyst with the federal government.

The attacks in Brussels on Tuesday are a very tragic reminder of the risk that Islamic State and its supporters pose to the West. For Canada, there is a very dim silver lining in that the government did not raise the national threat level following the attacks, which suggests our security services are unaware of any direct Canadian link to the perpetrators and their networks.

Although there is much that is still unknown, it is worth considering what the implications of the attack are for Canada and the West as IS loses territory in Syria, and switches its tactics. This is further complicated by an al-Qaeda resurgence in parts of North and East Africa as well as South Asia – a network that has repeatedly stated its intentions to conduct attacks against the "far enemy" in the West.

First, despite the unfortunate success of the Brussels attacks, it would be wrong to conflate this with the notion that IS is growing stronger. In fact, the attacks can be seen as a sign of IS's weakness. In taking credit for the attacks, IS did not provide much insider information, which suggests it may not have had operational control (although it may have given the attackers earlier approval). After losing territory following significant allied counterterrorism pressure, IS is increasingly reliant on such attacks for credibility among extremist audiences.

Second, related to this, as it loses ground, IS's fighters will likely seek to find other ungoverned or undergoverned spaces to continue their fight (such as Libya), or return to their home countries. This includes the West, where they may seek to engage in extremist violence in their own countries. Such tactics have recently been encouraged by IS, who now urges its supporters in the West to engage in domestic attacks rather than travelling to its so-called "caliphate."

The return of foreign fighters poses considerable security challenges for Canada. Attacks on Canadian soil thus far have been deadly, but relatively unsophisticated. In contrast, the attacks in Paris and Brussels highlight the extra capacity extremists gain when they receive militant training abroad. These attacks saw the use of relatively sophisticated bombs against soft targets (civilian airports and transportation hubs). In contrast, the Boston Marathon attacks in 2013 involved homemade bombs using manuals off the Internet. While the latter bombs were deadly, they would have been more so if trained attackers had created them.

Third, events in Paris and Brussels highlight the role of networks facilitated by communications technology in contemporary terrorism, with two important counterterrorism implications. One is that networks appear to have connected capable, motivated individuals to resources from a broader group of supporters in Europe and Syria. The other is that networks likely enabled a small extremist cell to pull off a second attack in an environment under intense counterterrorism scrutiny. This demonstrates the resiliency that networks provide terrorist groups, even under considerable counterterrorism pressure.

Although at this time there may be no direct threat, Canada is neither immune to nor free from the broader extremist networks within which the Brussels attackers situated themselves. Further, Canadian extremists likely seek to exploit these networks to facilitate their own threat-related activities, including travel, financing and attack planning. Disrupting these networks in ways that do not inhibit the travel, communications and rights of Canadians will remain a key challenge for security officials and policy makers.

Finally, as IS's caliphate fails, and its fighters are displaced, we can unfortunately expect further attacks of this nature in the future, including, potentially, on Canadian soil for the reasons listed above: a shift in IS tactics, returning foreign fighters, and resiliency obtained through networks.

Canadian authorities must continue to remain vigilant, but not overreact. Indeed, in the social sciences there is mounting empirical evidence that the best way to counter the threat of radicalization and violence is to take a humane approach that emphasizes the rights of individuals. As such, the challenge for policy makers is to find ways to vigorously pursue violent extremists, but avoid the overreaction which makes IS look stronger than it is, and serves to alienate the communities with whom we need to create and establish trust.