The year is about to finish and Paris has been hit, again, by ISIL. At the beginning of the year, 17 innocents were murdered in an attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s headquarters. Two days ago, again in Paris, at least 128 people were killed after several attacks, including the first suicide bombers in French history.
What ISIL did in Paris must be understood as an act of terrorism. The perpetrators, the targets, the context; all the factors point out that these were not an act of crime but an act of terror, and so it must be analysed as such. Terrorism is certainly the most cowardly form of war, as it targets civilians, and is the hardest to fight back against, as it is not against a standing army. It can be defined as the systematic and delivered killing of innocent civilians in order to achieve a political objective. And it is in light of these recent attacks that we must understand where it comes from, what we are doing to stop it and how it can be approached in the future.
It is nice to see the French flag portrayed on world monuments. It is nice to play a John Lennon song the morning after the attacks. Yet it is not enough.
One of the problems that we generally find when analysing terrorism, especially in the public sphere, is the lack of honest debate. The great taboos in the West have disallowed us to understand the threat in its full dimension. Moreover, sometimes we are scared to talk about these issues because of public retaliation. Who is the enemy? Is Islam somehow related? What are the implications of the refugee crisis? Has our rather timid strategy succeeded?
Policy-makers and society have flatly addressed all of these questions. I believe that, in many ways, the commitment to political correctness is partially responsible for the poor analysis that the public is presented with about terrorism. In order to understand, analyse and defeat this threat, it is fundamental that we have an honest and objective debate on this issue. To begin with, I would like to see more security analysts commenting in the public sphere, rather than journalists and politicians that many times are misinformed about security issues.
Last weekend’s attacks in Paris will certainly not be the last ones against the city or the West. These attacks raise many questions in the West, in Europe’s foreign policy (if such thing still exists, or better said, ought to exist) and in French security services. While France has had two terrible attacks this year, the UK hasn’t had a major one in 10 years. This does not mean the UK is immune to these attacks. Partially, I would say, it is a success of security measures taken in the US and the UK after 9/11 and 7/7. A success for those surveillance operations demonized by Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks and a success for the intelligence cooperation we have seen in the West. The relative peace we have had in the UK cannot, of course, last forever. Quite the contrary, believing it is possible to achieve total security against such an unpredictable threat is ludicrous. That is why it is important to produce an accurate assessment of the threat so it can be properly addressed.
Let’s try to begin getting the picture right. When analysing ISIL, and terrorism in general, we seem to be facing extremist militants, i.e. people that are not scared to immolate themselves, use child soldiers or sell human beings in order to finance their warfare. Violence is their modus operandi and is represented by their brutality. Do not get me wrong; those who claim ISIL are purely barbarians fail to understand that they have successfully been running a pseudo-state between Syria and Iraq. They have established a government structure, created a currency, and set up police and courts. They are certainly not dumb and they indeed understand very well the power of terrorism as an effective form of political violence.
It is hard, if not nearly impossible, to achieve the full level of security in our daily lives that might prevent these terrorist attacks. We end up having contradictory expectations between what citizens ask for and what the state can actually provide: we cannot have police and surveillance in every street - they would call it a police state. We cannot invade Syria, they would claim we are being colonialist; we cannot arm our citizens for self-defense, they would recall mass-shootings in the US; we cannot take harder measures against militant Islam in our own countries, they would be labelled islamophobic and xenophobic. There needs to be a balance between liberty and security, especially because sacrificing the former in the name of the latter is giving an outright victory to the groups that want to see our civilisation crumble.
In times when the public seems to have such influence in security and foreign policy - a phenomenon only possible in Western liberal democracies - the state seems constrained in what should be a world of realpolitik. Mr. Hollande said this was an act of war, yet we do not see the political and military will to address this issue. Will the leaders of Europe and its peoples be ready to take the pertinent and necessary decisions in order to address Islamic terrorism? Although solidarity and unity are important, it is not enough to win a war. It is nice to see the French flag portrayed on world monuments; it is nice to play a John Lennon song the morning after the attacks outside the Bataclan Theatre. Yet it is not enough; it is not enough because such a war must be treated with appropriate means. It is important to show unity in hard times with Paris and France, its beauty, its people and its historic role in the foundations of modern Western values. Nevertheless, although this is all important, it is definitely not enough. TMM