Two days prior, in the Iraqi city of Iskandariyah, another suicide bomber — this time in the employ of the Islamic State — struck among a crowd gathered to watch a local soccer game. Iraqi officials put the death toll at 41 and said dozens were injured.
A few days earlier, assailants linked to the Islamic State detonated explosives in the main airport of Brussels and in the Belgian capital's underground metro. More than 30 people were killed, not counting three suicide bombers, and hundreds were wounded. The assault revived European fears about the jihadist threat in their midst and deepened angst about the future of the continent's open-borders policy.
And on March 19, a suspected Islamic State suicide bomber struck on Istanbul's Istiklal Street, a popular pedestrian thoroughfare usually packed with tourists. Four foreigners were killed.
In the weeks prior, there have been other heinous attacks, including an al-Qaeda massacre in a beach town in the Ivory Coast and a deadly car bombing in the heart of the Turkish capital, Ankara, carried out by Kurdish separatists.
This ugly tapestry of terror stitches together a vast geography of nations that face very different challenges. But there are some common threads that are worth examining.
The deadly reach of the Islamic State
Three of the four attacks in the past week were explicitly carried out by the Islamic State; the other, in Lahore, was the work of militants whose Sunni fundamentalist creed is not that dissimilar from the militant organization, which still controls swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq.
In its spate of assaults on major world cities over the past half-year — from Paris to Istanbul to Jakarta — the Islamic State has displayed its willingness to kill and maim wherever it can. That usually means "soft targets," such as cafes, nightclubs and transport nodes crowded with civilians.
This is despite, or perhaps because of, the Islamic State's significant battlefield losses over the past year in Iraq and Syria. As my colleague Liz Sly reported last week, the group is being squeezed on multiple fronts, pinned back by U.S.-led coalition and Russian airstrikes and the advance of Iraqi, Kurdish and Syrian government forces and militias on the ground.
"Their morale is shaken," an Iraqi commander told Sly. "We listen to them on their communications devices. Their leaders are begging them to fight, but they answer that it is a lost cause. They refuse to obey orders and run away."
But the shifting strategic landscape hasn't curbed the Islamic State's ability to inflict mass casualties, as was seen in the carnage in Iskandariyah.
Indeed, the past week illustrated the ability of Islamic State proxies to operate in countries and cities far from its front lines. In Belgium, there was evidence of coordinated planning with extremist operatives in Syria. Yet the roots of their radicalization are not always clear. The Brussels assailants, for example, had ties to criminal networks and were not thought to be particularly devout or ideological.
Where there is terrorism, politics swiftly follows
And while the security challenge posed by this sort of violence is intricate and complex, the political response to acts of terrorism rarely is. Observe the immediate effect of the Brussels attacks on the U.S. political cycle: Republican presidential candidates took turns calling for methods — such as torture and community surveillance, which would be tantamount to racial profiling — that security experts swiftly rebuffed as too heavy-handed and probably counterproductive.
Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner, also offered this rather dubious claim when it came to resolving Pakistan's internal problems:
Or consider how the terrorism in Brussels stoked a wider sense of crisis in Europe. The violence fed into already escalating fears about the influx of migrants and refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. That such terrorism is now perhaps "Europe's new normal" sparked a backlash in many countries where far-right, populist political parties are in the ascendancy, campaigning against Muslim immigration and, in some cases, against the very idea of the European Union.
In Turkey, the Islamic State has been careful not to publicly take responsibility for its violence — a move that allows a level of uncertainty to shadow what is already a deeply polarized political landscape. When, for example, suspected Islamic State bombers killed more than 80 people at a leftist, pro-Kurdish rally in Ankara in October, critics of the government accused it of connivance with Islamist militants.
Turkish officials, meanwhile, insist that the Islamic State's terrorism is no different from the violence carried out by secular Kurdish militant groups, a view that isn't entirely shared by Turkey's neighbors and allies.
Governments can do more, but it is impossible to be totally safe
Acts of terrorism take place often in conditions of political instability and where militants can exploit the blind spots of state security agencies. The former is certainly the case in places such as Iraq and Pakistan; the latter was true in Belgium, where the dysfunctional governance structure — shaped by the tiny nation's linguistic divisions — is being partially blamed for the lapses in tracking the assailants.
In some cases, the terrorist threat has been readily apparent. As Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, observes, the Pakistani state and military has long tacitly tolerated the existence of militant groups in the province of Punjab, of which Lahore is the capital. Unlike their counterparts operating along the rugged Afghan border, these outfits have usually focused their animus toward neighboring India.
"Despite the strongholds of anti-India and sectarian extremist groups south of [Lahore], large-scale terror attacks had largely subsided," he writes. "Part of the reason could be the informal agreements many observers suspect that the state has made with these outfits: effectively, we won’t target you if you don’t target Punjab."
But such an understanding is dangerous.
"Sunday’s bomb blast reinforces the view in Lahore that complacency is a luxury residents cannot afford," Kugelman concludes. "In the short term, more attacks could be forthcoming."
There's a similar logic in Turkey, which is reeling from the spillover effects of the Syrian conflict next door.
"The question, unfortunately, is not if there will be a terror attack again, but when the next attack will be," Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told The Washington Post after the March 19 bombing in Istanbul. "To me, this looks like Turkey walking slow-motion into disaster."
The reach and limits of solidarity
Parallel to the chaos sown by the terrorists are the grating meta-narratives of the media. There's now a familiar refrain after major terrorist attacks in the West: On social media, memes first proliferate displaying sympathy and unity with the victims. We are asked to #prayforparis or #Brussels. Some make use of a Facebook widget and affix a translucent French or Belgian flag atop their profile image.
Soon, others follow, pointing out the double standards of our solidarity. Why isn't this level of compassion afforded to victims farther east, where terrorists exact a far greater toll? Why does a life in the West seem to have more value than another elsewhere?
"U.S. media outlets love to dramatize and endlessly highlight Western victims of violence, while rendering almost completely invisible the victims of their own side’s violence," writes the Intercept's Glenn Greenwald, who goes on to argue that this discrepancy helps obscure the costs of U.S. wars and blunders overseas.
(This is not simply a problem of the media. The U.S. government decided to fly flags at half-staff after the Brussels attacks; it's hard to imagine it doing the same after blasts in Pakistan.)
Others, though, are less sanguine. It's not that the Western media isn't covering violence elsewhere (it often is), it's that it's not necessarily amplified on your own Facebook timeline, as one foreign correspondent noted when panning the "myopic complaints" about media bias.
And at a certain point, these complaints show a lack of respect toward the dead.
"It is a bleak tit-for-tat game of dehumanization — with a flawed logic to make a point about the seniority of white deaths in a world where Islamic State kills far more Arabs every day," notes British Sudanese journalist Nesrine Malik. "And one ends up guilty of the same crime — victimhood denial. The 'whatabouter' who asks these questions is a not too distant cousin of the racist and the xenophobe, who sees the slaughter and uses it to make a point about immigration."
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