Why Germany Could Be ISIS’s Biggest Target

November 20, 2015, 3:18 PM UTC
Armed Police officers man a cordon around a car in the 18th district of Paris on November 17, 2015.
Photograph by Kenzo Tribouillard—AFP/Getty Images

Never mind that the attacks were ordered by a terrorist organization masquerading as a state with territory in at least two countries. As soon as Europeans heard the news, they rightly thought it must have something to do with that Syrian crisis.

The other result of the Syrian crisis, which is clearly visible to Europeans, the migrant crisis, quickly comes to everyone’s mind. Europeans have realized with some alarm that their prosperous, peaceful continent is on the same landmass as one of the most unstable and dangerous regions in the world.

To most Europeans, the Syrian conflict is now exporting two things, migrants and violence. It may be justified to conflate the two. ISIS infiltrators are likely to have joined the flows of refugees. The sheer volume of undocumented travellers means many have gone through unchecked. But the overwhelming majority are fleeing the kind of violence seen on the streets of Paris last Friday evening.

The plan to distribute them across Europe has been flawed from the start. The numbers in question represent a very small proportion of the estimated flows to Europe. The migrants have clear preferences among European Union member states and will be able to move within the border-free Schengen zone even if they are taken to a country they are assigned against their will. Several governments have been vocally hostile to welcoming migrants, citing “integration” concerns, usually because their country doesn’t have an established Muslim minority.

One of the terrorists in Paris entered Europe via the Greek migration route. This will provide political cover for the many who would like the problem to go away to oppose any kind of migrant quota plan designed to alleviate the burden on the countries, which have welcomed the most. The tragic events that unfolded last Friday have made a bad plan more likely to fail. It was just about manageable to speak of European unity over the grumblings from the Czech and Slovene governments. Once the new government of Poland — one of the EU’s biggest players — also rejects the system, the plan will not have much use at all.

Syrian migrants are already in Europe, however, and continue to arrive in Southern Germany where authorities are struggling to accommodate everyone decently. Having already reinstituted spot checks to quell criticism from within her own party, Chancellor Angela Merkel must now defend a situation in which migrants clearly prefer Germany and continue to arrive in Germany. This has dented her popularity, but not enough to weaken her. She has no credible contender on the center-right.

Sadly, the chance of another ISIS-led attack in Europe is not at all remote. For an organisation seeking to instill fear and mistrust, Germany will seem a particularly attractive target. Even a small attack could multiply the nascent sense of resentment against Merkel’s effectively irreversible policy of welcoming refugees. Merkel’s chancellorship would probably survive an attack in the short term but her ability to manage Europe’s various crises, from the geopolitical to the economic, would disappear. Something else will have grown out of Syria: chaos.

Mujtaba Rahman is the Europe Practice Head at Eurasia Group and an adjunct professor at New York University’s Stern Business School. Charles Lichfield is a Europe Associate at Eurasia Group.

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