(Originally published 17 November, 2015)
The slaughter of 131 civilians in Paris, one of the world’s most famous and vibrant cities, represents the worst terrorist attack to hit Europe since the Madrid bombings in 2004. It is another blow to a wounded nation in a string of attacks which have struck France in 2015 and an atrocity which dwarfs the horrific assault on Charlie Hebdo magazine’s headquarters by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on 7 January 2015. There is no doubt these events are shocking, the events must be thoroughly analysed, the images are harrowing and the perpetrators of these crimes must be brought to justice. However these attacks must be put into context, policymakers must be scrutinised and our reactions at an individual, community and government level must be cautious as well as fearless in the short-term.
For all the horrors splashed across newspapers and television in recent days ISIS stands badly wounded. The organisation’s territories are shrinking under the combined pressure of a variety of international, regional and local forces. Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian Army in-coordination with Russian air-strikes, and supported by Iranian fire-power have retaken key territories and broke year-long jihadist siege of a military air base in the country’s north days before the massacre in Paris. Its forces are encircled by Iraqi Security Forces and its backbone of Shiite militia at Ramadi, whose seizure by ISIS in May, 2015 had policymakers and political commentators alike contemplating that an assault on Baghdad was imminent. Similarly Tikrit, seized by ISIS in 2014 and the home of Saddam Hussein, was recaptured in April 2015. More symbolically, Kurdish forces (supported by Yezidi militia) have recaptured Sinjar cutting the main road which connect ISIS’s Syrian headquarters in Raqqa (which is under sustained bombardment by Russian, U.S, and French aircraft) from its headquarters in Mosul, Iraq. The retaking of Sinjar, whose fall was followed by harrowing mass-executions, the ethnic cleansing of the Yezidi population, and an event which heralded ISIS’s emergence as a major player in the Middle Eastern wars represents a practical and symbolic military breakthrough while Mosul stands isolated should Kurdish and U.S Special Forces consolidate their gains at Sinjar.
ISIS is losing the conventional war. Their perverse idea of a ‘caliphate’, a far-cry from its envisaged utopia, is cracking under sustained military pressure and it should not come as a surprise despite its vast array of fighters, its military and territorial gains in 2014, and its propaganda. ISIS’s twisted blend of revolutionary ultra-violence has united practically every international, regional and local powers against the organisation. At a conventional military level, as a functioning state it could never survive as a long-term political and economic entity.
However as the Paris attacks and the bombing of the Russian airline over the Sinai have illustrated, modern extremism is flexible, diverse, dynamic, fragmented and the equivalent of a modern hydra. Even if counterinsurgency eliminates leaders such as Osama Bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (the former leader of ISIS) and its executioners such as Mohammad Emwazi, new leaders and new extremists will fill the void. The death of Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, would not symbolise the death-blow to the organisation. The death of Mohammad Emwazi (also known as Jihadi John) days before the Paris attacks demonstrate this paradox; ISIS have the capability to inflict deep damage on our societies even when Western policyymakers strike symbolic victories. ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and Jahbat al-Nusra and the modern phenomenon of militant Islamic extremism cannot be defeated by conventional warfare. Modern extremism is absent a conventional hierarchical structure. ISIS is presented by politicians as monolithic yet it is the organisation’s very ambiguity which makes it difficult, if not impossible to completely eradicate, despite the bullish rhetoric of politicians such as Hollande, Cameron, and Obama in the wake of the Paris attacks.
While ISIS is part of the legacy of the catastrophic Iraq War, the Syrian Civil War and its ideology was significantly developed by men such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden, Abdullah Azzam and Seyed Qutb during the turbulent Cold War era, ISIS is also a brand, it is a system of ideas, it is a digital caliphate and it is a wider part of the upheaval created by the Information Age. ISIS is a thoroughly modern phenomenon. As Jason Burke notes ‘Islamic militants use social media because we use social media; they seek resources…money…hydrocarbons…weapons…in the way that many actors do across the world today…they multi-task as terrorists, insurgents and administrators because all play roles that are increasingly ill-defined; they exploit and are formed by the dramatic disruption…the Internet has brought…financing is crowd-sourced from donors…in a way that would be recognisable to any entrepreneurial start-up anywhere in the world.’ This is what differentiates ISIS from Al-Qaeda; it is a hybrid, a combination of old and new as globalisation and newer forms global interaction of politics, economics, culture, technology and social organisation that dominate our contemporary world have rapidly ‘weakened older forms of authority.’
As ISIS’s conventional military operations and ambitions as a state faltered, it switched back to its most potent strategy; sowing political, communal and societal divisions and altering national politics and military policy for the worst through urban terrorism and asymmetrical warfare. This classic formula of asymmetrical warfare has produced results. Suicide bombings hampered the Americans ill-fated state-building project in Iraq and proved to be a lethal catalyst for tit-for-tat Shiite and Sunni pogroms, the Ankara bombings were scheduled days before highly-charged elections in Turkey, and most devastatingly on September 11th 2001, the destruction of the World Trade Center led to the gross misapplication of American political and military power across the globe, to which the most devastating consequences were seen in the Middle East. These small attacks occuring in cities across the world, by comparison to the bloodshed and large-scale confrontations occurring across the Middle East, are more unnerving because they are difficult to prevent, they require a strong response by the targeted government, and their response, if heavy-handed and driven by ill-advised policies, can increase problems rather than alleviate them. In Paris the attacks were designed precisely to foment religious and racial war and strengthen hard-line right and right-wing parties just three weeks before regional elections in which parties such as Front National (led by Marine Le Pen) are ‘tipped to make historic gains.’ While the terrorist attacks witnessed in Paris were fanatical acts, they were first and foremost political acts dressed in religious rhetoric and designed to cause havoc at a hyper-sensitive moment in French politics.
At face-value Western values continue to be upheld, but in reality, at-least at a state-level, they may become an increasing illusion in the obsessive quest for security. Security is tightened, refugees, opposition and minorities are stereotyped and vilified, military arrests and operations are conducted and often kill more civilians, and the hunt for terrorists, their affiliates, and potential suspects justifies the violation and eradication of human rights. More disturbingly in Europe it empowers hard-right and right-wing politicians, journalists and commentators who seek to exploit the tragedy to advance unnerving political agendas, ideologies, and policies.
While the acts of violence are a consequence of extremism, they are also a product of gang violence, immigration problems, poverty, issues of societal segregation and integration, contextual regional and national politics, and the policies governments’ are using to pursue potential and real threats. These are all factors which are difficult for many governments to address under normal conditions and in an atmosphere of relative stability and now these socio-political and religious issues have been ruthlessly exploited by ISIS and its affiliates in times of grave political and economic crisis in Europe.
The narratives of terrorism and Islamic militancy dominate mainstream political, military, and media discourse as ‘Islamism, Islamic extremism, Islamic fundamentalism, Islamic theology, Islamic irrationalism – makes Islam seem more than ever a concept in search of some content while normalising hatred and prejudice against more than 1.5 billion people.’ At the other end of the spectrum ISIS has constructed an equally potent narrative. Its propaganda distorts local and national context, its warped interpretation and vile manipulation of religion (used as another form of politics) has alienated other factors driving conflict in the Middle East and has, as Medhi Hasan claims, ‘been a disaster for the public image of Islam – and a boon for the Islamophobia industry.’ ISIS is a symptom, not the cause of violence in the Middle East, and has been fueled by friend and foe alike in the region. Both polarised narratives feed off each other, promote disinformation, produce generalisations, they exacerbate intolerance and distort truth and they pollute the values of billions such as tolerance, religious diversity, multiculturalism, the exchange of ideas, innovation, enlightenment, spirituality, education, and progressive thinking. These are all values which are under threat.
Security is an undeniable necessity in this age of crisis and war, we must remain vigilant against those individuals and organisations who seek to violently slaughter our families, our neighbours, our friends and our fellow citizens. Yet we cannot sacrifice our ideals, our principles, and our values for absolute security, a security which is practically impossible to enforce constantly in the face of modern extremism.
We must remain equally wary of individuals and groups within our own society who seek to exploit such pain to advance repugnant and racist forms of politics wrapped in promises of security. If we do not, if we harden our own attitudes, if we lash out wildly at provocation, if we scapegoat minorities and refugees and label them spies, outsiders and infiltrators because of the atrocities of the few, we will empower and give individuals and organisations who seek to advance their cause through force their twisted sense of justice, logic and legitimisation to conduct appalling violence and divide communities across the world. If we pursue this path, we give terrorists, politicians and people who seek to exploit tragedy their victory. How we react to the harrowing events of 13th-14th November, 2015 as a community of nations, as societies from all walks of life, as individuals will define whether these attacks were a resounding success or a spectacular failure.
I see only spectacular failure. The Paris attacks were a potent symbol of a world gripped by crisis, war and one which is dangerously polarised politically, religiously and fractured economically. These are undeniable realities facing us and they must be challenged. Yet the attacks were also a symbol of an unyielding determination of individuals and communities to act and stand courageously in the face of sorrow, extraordinary pain, and uncertainty. Time and again we have seen this across the world whether it be from Beirut to Paris, Tel Aviv to Damascus, Baghdad to New York, Volgograd to London, Sydney to Mumbai and Ankara to Kabul. The shocking brutality and intolerance of the few is met by the same courage, the same raw outpourings of grief and love which are as beautiful as they are heart-wrenching to witness, and every time this ferocity is met with the same response by millions of families, friends, and individuals; they fearlessly say no to extremism, intolerance and violence every year against every attack and atrocity across the globe. So long as this continues, so long as even a single individual, regardless of their religion, political affiliation, culture or society, says no to the extremities of war and says no to violence as the only palpable outcome to disagreement while forsaking hatred and vengeance the principles and values which have seen man through the darkest of times can never be defeated. Liberté, egalité, fraternité.