The term “Global War on Terror” may have been phased out by the Obama administration, but it continues nonetheless; terror attacks know no bounds. Islamic terrorists continue to display an apparently insatiable desire to wreak havoc upon both their fellow Muslims and more broadly throughout the world. Friday’s tragic attacks in Paris are the latest manifestation of the Islamic State’s limitless brand of jihad.
The attacks in Paris come in the wake of attacks against civilians in Lebanon and the bombing of a Russian jet over the Sinai peninsula. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for all three. Taken together, these attacks reveal a startling truth about the ISIS: the organization is indeed waging a global war, and it is a war of ideas. The Islamic State firmly believes in its own brand of Sharia law and the validity of its self-proclaimed caliphate. In their eyes, both Muslims and non-Muslims who do not prescribe to its doctrines are valid targets for extermination. They do not differentiate between the Muslim and non-Muslim victims they have slaughtered.
Defeating ISIS will take more than a coordinated military campaign; an ideological battle must also be waged within the Muslim world. The Islamic State is very attractive for Muslims who believe that society is broken and that the caliphate based in Raqqa is the beginning of a new, bright future. Bombs and bullets cannot destroy that idea. American, French, British, Turkish, Russian, Iranian and Syrian forces might someday annihilate the Islamic State, but the allure of a caliphate cannot be bombed into submission. The West cannot dictate the proper way to practice Islam. As much as the West pontificates about the value of non-violent Islam, no one outside the Muslim world can easily persuade people against joining ISIS or other jihadist groups. That effort must come from within the Islamic community. But this kind of ideological effort is largely absent. The Islamic world needs a charismatic leader and a mass movement to publicly and demonstrably oppose the use of religiously inspired violence. Until that movement occurs and produces a more popular and peaceful vein of Islamic politics, jihad will persist and the world can expect further terrorist attacks.
The Paris attacks will only exacerbate the trend of nationalistic revival in France and across Europe. Historic examples suggest that it is almost inevitable that a terrorist attack by outsiders on a nation’s soil will stir up prejudice against people perceived as associated with the attackers. In the US, we need not think beyond post-Pearl Harbor Japanese internment camps or post-9/11 Islamophobia. In France, we have already observed a dramatic rise in anti-Muslim incidents in the wake of Charlie Hebdo and the other terrorist attacks of early 2015. I don’t see this trend abating anytime soon.
Terrorism, by nature, is designed to engender mass hysteria. It breeds paranoid fear of the other within a nation, making it easy for xenophobic politics to appeal to citizens on a powerful, emotional level. In France, the extreme-right National Front party has already been climbing in the polls as ethnic and religious tensions rise, and the Paris shootings will likely boost the party’s popularity further.
Marine Le Pen, the party’s leader, declared in a news conference the day following the attacks that “France and the French are no longer safe. It is my duty to tell you so.” With such a statement, Le Pen clearly exploits her people’s fear in the aftermath of tragedy to push forward her party’s nationalistic agenda. She goes on to urge France to secure its national borders – EU freedom of movement be damned – strengthen its military and police forces, and, most shockingly, “ban Islamist organizations, close radical mosques, and kick out foreigners who are preaching hatred on our soil, as well as illegal immigrants who have nothing to do here.”
Unfortunately, the unprecedented scale and level of coordination of the recent attacks grant Le Pen’s exhortations an air of credibility. Her underlying message boils down to “I told you so”: the National Front has been warning France about the dangers of uncontrolled immigration and religious extremism for years, and now, more and more French might begin to take them seriously.
In the following hours and days after the attack, Muslims in France and around the world took to social media to denounce the terrorist attacks and express their solidarity with Paris with hashtags like “#MuslimsAreNotTerrorists” and “#NotInMyName”. Some even tweeted a quote from the Qur’an: “Whoever kills an innocent person it is as if he has killed all of humanity” (5:32). I can only hope that France, and the rest of the world, will hear this loud enough to drown out nationalist paranoia; we’ll all need to unite to fight the real enemy.
ISIS’s attack on Paris was well-organized, coordinated and able to create mass damage and casualties with simple technology. Most poignantly , it was able to sneak past the security and intelligence infrastructure that blankets the “Western World”. The answer, then, cannot be more security, surveillance, border controls and other domestically invasive policies.
The unfortunate reality we must deal with is that as long as ISIS has a base in the Middle East (even if their territorial ambitions are “contained”, using the words of President Obama), terrorist attempts are inevitable whether it is somewhere in the Middle East (e.g. Beirut), in the skies, in Europe or in the United States. ISIS is a religious state: its actions and the actions of its followers are rationalized using religion and the promise of an afterlife that rewards violence and martyrdom. The group is also fully invested in asymmetric warfare, as it cannot compete against conventional armies. As long as this state exists, the idea of extremism will remain strong – fueled by propaganda, weapons, money and the existence of thousands of fighters – and more young people and innocent civilians will die. This also means that barring the complete elimination of freedoms, there will be gaps in security that terrorists can take advantage of.
Hopefully, this attack will be an important wake up call for actual military action to destroy ISIS. People criticize military strikes as ineffective to solving the root problems of extremism, as it destroys the material aspects and can strengthen the ISIS ideology of “War with the West”. However, ideas of extremism will always exist – the fact that Nazism still exists attests to this – but completely destroying ISIS as a material state, which is a potent physical symbol, and enfranchising arab minority youths in the West will go a long way to significantly reduce the strength of terrorism to a point where it does not threaten global stability. In the long run, the solution should be to develop the Middle East’s government institutions and economy—but that is easier said than done. It will be a true tragedy if the inertia of inaction prevents us from acting against ISIS in a full-fledged military fashion and instead draws our attention inward solely toward domestic “targets”, Arab Muslim minorities and refugees in Europe, and domestic security issues. Engaging in a full-fledged military response against ISIS will not be easy or simple, but it is the most straight-forward option to reduce the threat of extremist terrorism in a significant way. Destroy the state and its infrastructure, and extremist ideology will face far more hurdles than it currently does.
American writer Tao Lin writes in one of his short stories of an era where, “During any moment, it was feared, a terrorist might tunnel up into your house and replace your dog with something that resembled your dog but was actually a bomb.” That’s the classic picture of what terrorism is useful for: generating mass fear and mass horror, with cynical media frenzy and controversial Facebook solidarity alongside. Although ISIS has claimed Friday’s attack, their intentions are confusing. ISIS has always been about state building; so what’s the geopolitical calculus in provoking France and, in the case of the plane crash, Russia into more dramatic involvement in Syria? Was the idea to intimidate Europe out of the region (the jury is still out as to whether Europe has been intimidated)? Or was it a tit-for-tat war games response to the increase in French air strikes? In either case I don’t see an intelligent, strategic mind behind these shootings—the kind of mind that planned 9/11 and incited the wars which allowed contemporary terrorism to flourish. I see a blunt, religious instrument. And I hope I’m right in thinking that this will turn out to be a regrettable mistake by ISIS leading to a more coordinated Western (and Russian) effort against them. By effort, I mean something military and difficult and inevitably violent. What would be really scary is if this kind of disaster did not work to unify Europe’s foreign policy. There’s nothing as disheartening as a terrorist attack that turns out to have been geopolitically clever. Or worse, good marketing.
This is a terrorist attack. ISIS conducts terrorist attacks to scare people. Scared people make mistakes. Scared leaders overzealously bomb and prematurely invade. Policy motivated by fear is rarely good policy.
Europe needs to slow down, cool off, mourn the dead and make a better plan to confront ISIS in the next year. Stopping ISIS will require ground troops and pacification, not drone strikes or bombing runs.
The hysteria will pass. France will recover. Europe will probably not engage ISIS beyond militarily superficial airstrikes.
Perhaps the most important internal issue that the tragedy in Paris could spark is a new refugee crisis; at least one of the perpetrators of the attack may have crossed the border into Greece disguised as a refugee. If this information is verified, Europe will have to completely reconsider their handling of the refugee crisis and their open border policy.
The most immediate reaction is going to be a social one—refugees already face stigma and hatred from nationalistic European groups (my fellow correspondent Katya Lopatko discusses this in more detail). These groups, as well as those initially opposed to allowing refugees into Europe, have already started using Friday’s attacks to stir up fear about border security.
The EU has said that they do not see a need to change their refugee policy because of the attacks. But some world leaders, such as Poland’s minister for European Relations, have said that they will not take any more refugees until border security is heightened. The worst-case scenario is a collapse of the Schengen agreement. The agreement was already on thin ice; days before the attack happened, European Council President Donald Tusk said “the future of Schengen is at stake and time is running out.” If world leaders do not trust their European neighbors to secure the border properly and handle refugees with precision, the internal borders of Europe may no longer flow freely.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker reminded world leaders on Sunday that “those who organized these attacks, and those who carried them out, are exactly those who the refugees are fleeing.” However, it is clear that some member states are not convinced that current policy is enough to protect their borders. At best, it is about to get a lot more uncomfortable to be a refugee in Europe—at worst, refugee status in Europe is about to become impossible.
Those who say the Paris attacks were mindless and lacking in strategy are misguided. The Islamic State is trying to evoke an apocalyptic clash of civilizations that will drive Western Muslims into their waiting arms. Extreme retaliatory responses will only work in their favor.
A fellow correspondent (Jack Anderson) highlighted the dramatic schism within Islam. The Islamic State, stuck in 7th century religious practices, seeks to build a society where ancient texts exercise full and literal jurisdiction. ISIS believes there will be an epic End of Days battle, and any attacks on the West are meant to further polarize what they call “Rome” and the “crusaders” from the Islamic army in a lead-up to the final confrontation.
The backward al-Qaeda offshoot is indeed primarily focused on state building and territorial acquisition. But attacks such as those carried out in Paris play into their long-term goal of forcing Muslim apostates to choose: will they pledge allegiance to the khalifah or will they join Western infidels? In the official statement claiming responsibility for the attacks, ISIS makes the options clear. The symbolism behind Paris as a target is founded in a direct cultural opposition to Islamic values as interpreted by ISIS. The rock concert at the Bataclan, for example, was full of foolish and perverse “idolaters”.
These attacks are a divisive wedge, meant to pit the West against Islam and vice versa — whether through the escalation of military force abroad or through an ideological backlash in policy domestically. Both have the potential to alienate Muslim communities everywhere. Excessive military violence and a refusal to accept refugees is just what ISIS wants. As other correspondents have iterated, actions in both spheres must be weighed against a larger plan. US and European leaders must account for the Islamic State’s permanent goals, and avoid any temporary fix that would only make their actions predictable. Bombing another Syrian city, at the expense of civilian casualties to hunt a non-state actor will not only be ineffective— it will create new enemies and give existing ones representational power. So will translating Islamophobia into policy. After all, lest we forget, many ISIS members are European passport holders.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff, editors or governors.