Despite the mass-casualty assaults ISIS has claimed in Paris and Nice, many recent attacks attributed to the group have been smaller in scale; the toll from Thursday’s so far stands at one fatality. But the psychological impact could be far-reaching. The incident has occurred in an environment of skepticism and fear about increased immigration; a migrant and refugee crisis stemming largely from the Syria civil war that Europe has been unable to cope with; and continuing economic upheaval.
Thursday’s attack appears to have been carried out by a single gunman, and the ISIS claim of responsibility was unusually swift in coming; the group often waits a day or two before issuing a formal claim, if it does so at all. In asserting responsibility via its official news agency Amaq, the group identified the attacker by the name Abu Yusuf al-Beljiki—as Rukmini Callimachi of The New York Times wrote on Twitter, this is a nom de guerre that translates to Abu Yusuf the Belgian. If indeed the attacker was Belgian, he would be the latest in a line of attackers in France who originated in Belgium. French authorities claim to have identified the attacker but did not publicly name him. Separately, Reuters reported Thursday that French police had issued an arrest warrant for a second suspect who reportedly arrived in France from Belgium by train.
Belgian citizens were connected to the November 2015 Paris attacks. At least one of those attackers, in turn, was later linked to an attack in Brussels in March 2016 that killed 30 people. As I wrote at the time:
There were warning signs—several of them—before the Brussels attacks: Belgium has long been known as Europe’s hub for Islamist radicals. More Belgians have joined ISIS as a proportion of the population than have people from any other Western country. Many of the Paris attackers were Belgian nationals or residents. One particular Brussels neighborhood, Molenbeek, has come under scrutiny from counterterrorism officials as well as the media as the epicenter of Belgian jihadism. Another, Schaerbeek, where police raids in the aftermath of Tuesday’s attacks were carried out, will likely face similar scrutiny soon. Europol, the EU’s police agency, warned as far back as January that ISIS “special forces” had planned to target European cities in attacks like those on Mumbai, India, in 2008.
ISIS, despite recent territorial losses in Iraq and Syria, clearly remains capable of striking Europe—or at least inspiring followers to strike there. In the closing stages of a heated presidential campaign in France, it may be capable of swaying the country’s politics, too.