The Nice Attack: Europe's slide into an era of hybrid terror and hyper-security


The massacre of civilians in Nice by Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhel, a French-Tunisian national, as they celebrated on Bastille Day continues to demonstrate that ISIS's unconventional but violent war in Europe is grimly flourishing. The continent, joined at the hip with a Middle East consumed by violence, faces a severe security and humanitarian crisis. ISIS's devastating terrorist campaign has compounded these problems by injecting fear, uncertainty, and polarisation into an already potent mixture, as nation's states across Europe stand divided politically, economically and socially. 

The costs of ISIS's suicide bombings and nihilistic attacks have been stark. Belgium has lost thirty nine civilians in attacks in Brussels airport, the Jewish Museum of Belgium, and Maalbeek Metro station. In one coordinated attack in May in the Syrian towns of Jableh and Tartous, ISIS murdered one-hundred and seventy nine people. In 2016 alone, major suicide bombings have killed over nine-hundred civilians and security personnel in Iraq, the most horrific of which, conducted on 2 July, killed over three-hundred and cemented itself as Iraq's second worst terrorist attack in history. Twelve days after the destruction of a jet which killed two-hundred and twenty four on a Russian airliner and one day before the November Paris attacks, a series of coordinated attacks in Beirut killed forty-three. In 2015, the beaches of Sousee in Tunisia, Seifeddine Rezgui Yacoubi gunned down thirty-nine British tourists while in 2016 Omar Mateen slaughtered forty-nine party-goers in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The growing list of  countries' citizens who have been butchered and maimed by ISIS extends into Yemen, Afghanistan, the wider Syrian and Iraqi conflicts, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, Libya, Kuwait and Turkey. These attacks have been supported by smaller acts of militancy in Ottawa, Lyon, Copenhagen, San Bernandino, Jakarta, Dakha, Sydney and beyond. 

 Coalition and anti-ISIS rebel forces face an uphill battle to defeat the group permanently.

Coalition and anti-ISIS rebel forces face an uphill battle to defeat the group permanently.

France lies at the heart of ISIS's campaign against major Western and Middle Eastern cities. Since the cell's declaration of a caliphate in 2014, three major attacks in Paris and Nice and a series of smaller attacks have claimed the lives of two-hundred and thirty nine French civilians and security personnel and wounded over seven-hundred and fifty. The statistics pouring out of France in themselves indicate how deeply the blowback of the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars and catastrophic adventurism of Western policymakers since 9/11 and Arab revolutions are cutting into states, societies and cities across North America, Europe, and the Middle East.

Equally the atrocities in Nice illustrate how the Western wars against ISIS in Syria and Iraq are continuing to fail to crush ISIS's insurgency at a local, regional and global level through conventional military action absent political and socio-economic solutions. ISIS's conventional military operations and ambitions as a state may have stalled, but it has merely switched back to its most potent and honed strategy of war; sowing political, communal and societal divisions and altering national politics and military policy for the worst through urban terrorism and asymmetrical warfare. ISIS's territories may have shrunk in Syria, Iraq and Libya in conventional combat, but ISIS's strength lies in its decentralised structure. 

ISIS is a terrorist group, sub-state, and army supported by a movement of freelance militants, self-fashioned jihadists, and non-violent extremists driven by an ultra-violent revolutionary ideology.

ISIS's classic formula of savage urban terrorism is producing its best results and cementing its reputation of terror in the imaginations of policymakers, societies, individuals, and worst of all inspiring extremists. Suicide bombings derailed the Americans ill-fated attempts at regime change in Iraq and proved to be a lethal catalyst for tit-for-tat Shiite and Sunni pogroms and religious-nationalist violence. Attacks across Europe, as seen in the aftermath of the Paris and Nice attacks, are precisely designed to foment racial and religious war, civil unrest, hate crimes in a self-serving cycle of violence, and bolster the destructive 'War of Civilisations' narrative fed by violent and non-violent extremists, nationalists, secularists, and religious zealots from across the spectrum. It is impossible to forget the most devastating application of this formula was conducted by Al-Qa'ida, whose murder of nearly three-thousand civilians led to the misapplication of American political and military power across the globe, the most devastating consequences of which were felt in the Middle East. 

To brand ISIS's ideology and violence as harkening back to medieval brutality is a gross oversimplification. The groups prescription of puritanical violence is propelled forward by technological revolution, the unprecedented ascension of information and developments driving a hyper-modern world woven together by globalisation. ISIS may be bi-product of the instability across vast swathes of the Middle East and South Asia, but it has also successfully tapped into contemporary socio-political and economic grievances across the world. ISIS is a terrorist group, sub-state, and army supported by a movement of freelance militants, self-fashioned jihadists, and non-violent extremists driven by an ultra-violent, anti-establishment revolutionary ideology. 

 Conventional warfare, air-raids and covert war waged against ISIS's citadels in Raqqa, Mosul, Ramadi, Fallujah, Tikrit, Sinjar, and Palmyra cannot destroy ISIS because it is not a conventional terrorist group such as the Taleban nor can intelligence thwart all attacks and track all these individuals who have pledged themselves to ISIS's revolutionary movement. Terrorism is not a new phenomenon, however the way ISIS conducts its operations and gain such traction at a series of different levels is unprecedented. ISIS is several entities at once, it creates terror through spectacular acts of violence yet is also shrouded in ambivalence. It is a defined yet undefined threat. In medieval times, a Middle Eastern militia (which effectively what ISIS started as) would not have been able to accomplish such a thing. 

ISIS's most significant success, while rooted in its blood-stained onslaught upon the Middle East and Europe, is that it has bridged the gap between being a terrorist organisation and a movement and made its culture of violence mainstream. Whether or not Bouhel, a petty criminal,  was following direct orders from ISIS's elite operating in Syria does not matter. Bouhel was a member of this movement and this is the most consequential aspect of ISIS's existence. Its sanctified, anti-establishment, and sectarian brand of brutality which targets everyone is in mainstream currents of political and ideological violence. 

ISIS has bridged the gap between being a hierarchical terrorist organisation and a mass movement.


The movement has attracted tens of thousands of fighters, affiliates, collaborators and sympathisers who subscribe to their ideology. Many thousands of these individuals have not even gone to the Middle East to fight with ISIS, many are home-grown European, Russian or American nationals who have been living in their countries for several generations. While these numbers are poultry when measured against the billions of Muslims who despise ISIS world-wide these numbers are enough to be significant as Mehdi Hasan notes: 

"ISIS...has been a disaster for the public image of Islam - and a boon for the Islamophobia industry...Above all else, such rhetoric is dangerous and self-defeating, as it provides Baghdadi and his minions with the propaganda prize and recruiting tool that the most crave."

The narratives of terrorism and Islamic militancy dominate mainstream political, military and media discourse across the globe. At the other end of the spectrum ISIS has constructed an equally potent narratives which glorifies in slaughtering infidels and takfiri and exports Holy War across the globe. The thousands of people which comprise ISIS's movement are more than enough to do serious damage as its self-created freelance jihadists and groups of young men and women staging attacks bask in the theatre of terror which 24/7 hour news provides. It is a tit-for-tat cycle which has gained an almost unstoppable momentum. These distorted and poisonous narratives feed off of each other, they misguide and they breed stereotypes while segregating and alienating communities from each other. It is a tit-for-tat cycle which has gained an almost unstoppable momentum. 

 Credit: Reuters/Eric Gaillard

Credit: Reuters/Eric Gaillard

In a time when Europe and United States is witnessing the reemergence of far-right politics, hate crime against European and American Muslims and other minorities, economic stagnation, racist rhetoric against migrants and refugees fleeing war zones, and a fast-growing list of demagogues  promising security and demonising Muslims for covert political agendas, the implications for the Europe and the wider Western world are disturbing.

An ISIS army will not charge into Europe on horseback, they will not plant the flag on the White House, and Baghdadi will not be triumphantly overlooking the Pacific after capturing the final American fortress in Hawaii. Such alarmist thinking overshadows the more sinister and complex threats as Western communities grapple with its identities and values like never before in this cruel post-9/11 world. The likes of ISIS are simply banking on policymakers and the public to keep undermining our own civil societies and liberties while promoting demagogues like Trump, Farage and Le Pen as each attack pushes us closer to disorder and unrest. ISIS's ideology thrives on disorder, it is a war of attrition and ideas which will last decades and Western states are playing into their hands as ISIS simultaneously forces their hand with each attack. The tragedy of Nice will be remembered as another chapter in Europe's seemingly unstoppable slide into an era of hybrid terror and hyper-security. 

Matthew Williams