Alex, Sascha and the Toll of Islamist Terror

Our son-in-law and his sister were among the dead in Brussels. Will the West take the fight to ISIS and will the U.S. lead the way?

By James P. Cain
April 10, 2016 4:34 p.m. ET
Two Saturdays ago, just outside Maastricht, the Netherlands, I visited the 65-acre American Cemetery in Margraten. A sea of marble white crosses and Stars of David is arrayed in a gentle arc marking the final resting place of 8,301 American soldiers who fell nearby while ensuring the liberty and security of a Europe brutalized by World War II.

My wife, Helen, our daughters Cameron and Laura, and a few friends and I were there to view the magnificent array of flowers brought to the cemetery the day before. The flowers came from the funerals of Alexander and Sascha Pinczowski, Dutch siblings who lived in New York and were murdered on March 22 in the Brussels airport by Islamist terrorists Ibrahim el-Bakraoui and Najim Laachraoui.

Alex was married to our daughter Cameron.

He was an exceptionally clever student of international relations, and possessed a keen curiosity about the world. Alex and I talked about the deliverance of Europe from the evils of Nazism, including his family’s hometown of Maastricht. We didn’t always see eye to eye on politics, but Alex and I agreed that the Allies’ success in 1944 had some essential requisites. Those included: the ability to coordinate an effort against a poisonous ideology; the willpower of free people from noncaptive nations to commit to fighting a common enemy; and the presence of resolute leadership—which could only come, at that point, from America.

As I stood before the dozens of bouquets at the cemetery, I pondered whether, with an enemy of a type different in this century, America today was still willing to fulfill the leadership role that once brought peace and freedom to the world. And are the countries affected by this modern war, which includes many of the same nations ravaged by World War II, willing to take this fight seriously?

Our own experience in Brussels, while frantically searching for Alex and Sascha, gives reason for doubt.

At Astrid military hospital, where Cameron, Helen and I, along with Marjan and Ed Pinczowski, Alex and Sascha’s parents, coordinated our search, Belgian crisis-management capability could only be described as disheartening. It was rife with misinformation, confusion and a seeming callous disregard for the sentiments of the frantically searching families.

But more painful than the botched crisis management is the knowledge that this tragic event shouldn’t have happened at all.

We have learned that the Belgian authorities had advance knowledge of the affiliations and intentions of Najim Laachraoui, Ibrahim el-Bakraoui and his brother, Khalid, the suicide bomber who struck the Brussels subway. They were serious criminals who had served prison time. The FBI, the New York City police and Turkish intelligence reportedly had informed the Belgians that these men were suspected terrorists. They had visited Syria and had Islamic State sympathies. They were known associates of the mastermind of the Paris attacks in November. Yet the Belgian authorities failed to act.

Belgium has been described as the closest thing Western Europe has to a failed state. Its neighborhoods, including those in which the murderers grew up, are breeding grounds for Islamist extremism. Multiple agencies have overlapping and inconsistent jurisdiction and refuse to share intelligence. The Belgian authorities clearly have been unable to ensure their own national security, or that of visitors to their country. How ironic that NATO and the European Union have headquarters in Brussels.

Let’s be clear. This fight is not only against America and Europe, and it is not against Christianity. It is a fight against individualism, reason and independence of thought that began during the Enlightenment over 350 years ago in France, and found its greatest expression in the grand experiment launched by our Founding Fathers in Philadelphia.

This freedom is now under attack by the henchmen of the Dark Ages wherever they detect it—from Paris to Pakistan, San Bernardino to Istanbul, Nairobi to Brussels. Those who embrace this freedom, in what was once permissible to call the civilized world, are awakening to the battle lines that are forming. And like the battles that liberated Europe 70 years ago, the civilized world now demands coordination, willpower and leadership.

Following the 9/11 attacks 15 years ago, NATO for the first time in its history invoked Article 5 of its treaty, providing for the collective defense of its member nations. A coordinated coalition of countries invaded Afghanistan and routed al Qaeda and the Taliban. The willpower existed, and America provided leadership.

Yet in the years since, Islamist terror has reasserted its murderous campaign, killing more in cities and towns around the world than even the shocking total of victims on 9/11. Where is the solidarity and collaboration the allied nations showed after the horrifying attacks of 9/11?
More important, where is American leadership?

Even before the horrifying attacks in Brussels, I was hearing grave concern from many friends in Europe about America’s withdrawal from the global stage: Our leaving Iraq without putting adequate security measures in place; our rebuffing of traditional allies in the region; our passivity as hundreds of thousands of Syrians were slaughtered; our paralysis as Islamic State made a grotesque spectacle of beheading “infidels,” including Americans. Since the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, the worried chorus from Europe has grown louder.

We know the genesis of the terror in Brussels. Within hours of the trio of explosions, Islamic State claimed responsibility. Islamic State, al Qaeda, Boko Haram, the Haqqani network—they are all spawn of the twisted mind-set known as Islamist extremism. But for the moment, the Salafi militants of Islamic State are our greatest threat, and the greatest threat to America’s European allies. While Islamic State has ceded some ground in the Middle East, it is spreading into Yemen, Libya, Nigeria, Afghanistan and other poorly defended fronts. But we know that the homeland of its venom lies in the interiors of Iraq and Syria.

With the trio of recent horrors in Paris, San Bernardino and Brussels fresh in our minds, now is the time for NATO to invoke Article 5 anew. It is time to take the fight to the enemy; to provide our NATO allies and partners, like Belgium, with the tools and resources they need; and to inspire in them the willpower, which they have not heretofore shown, to take this fight seriously.

But all of this would require American leadership. If it is not forthcoming now, voters at least know what to look for in the next president: Someone who can articulate a steadfast devotion to the fight, and who has the skills, temperament and character to inspire other nations to join this battle against those who would destroy civilization.

Mr. Cain, a former U.S. ambassador to Denmark, is the principal of Cain Global Partners.