The terrorist attacks in Paris on Nov. 13 have justly provoked great emotion. All over the world, people have expressed solidarity and friendship toward Paris and the victims. The French people are grateful for this outpouring of support. But a time of reflection is also necessary in order to understand the importance of the event and to avoid quick and easy explanations that are misleading, especially in an election season. We must think about what motivated the authors of these acts and look closely at the roots of terrorism. We must also carefully consider what actions to take in the future.
Paris was on the top of the list for terrorist attacks by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL). President Francois Hollande of France had said only a day before the attacks that terrorists could strike at any time. An attack in Toulouse had been avoided some days before. The reason appears to be the involvement of France in the bombings in Syria, but also in Africa against ISIS in Nigeria, Mali and other places. The attacks followed various declarations that ISIS would strike directly in the West at any time.
This attack is very different from the assault on the offices of the periodical Charlie Hebdo in January. At that time, the two terrorists had a precise target and did not wear explosive belts, while the latest attacks sought to inflict the greatest damage possible. In that sense, it is new in Europe. The reaction has also been very different: in January, there was a huge demonstration with millions of people and more than 40 heads of government in Paris in order to protest what was considered an attack on freedom of speech. This time, the reaction is closer to silence and desolation. On the day after the attack, a Saturday, everything was closed in Paris; streets and cafes were empty, not only for mourning, but out of fear and uncertainty about the future.
This type of attack is new in Western Europe. The coordination of several groups of individuals shows a high level of preparation and planning, without using the normal electronic means of communication (otherwise they would have been detected). The authors of the attacks acted against anonymous people and not against a specific target. This is clearly a stepping up of terrorism in the heart of Europe, what specialists are calling mass terrorism.
It is also a change of strategy for ISIS. ISIS forces are stymied in their fight in Syria and Iraq by multiple American, Russian and French air strikes. The Kurds have taken back an important city, Sinjar. The scenario in Yemen and in Nigeria with Boko Haram is the same: ISIS-affiliated groups have been contained. Since it has been stopped on the battlefield, ISIS is switching to international acts of terrorism, more in the style of Al Qaeda: the Russian plane in Egypt, the attack on Beirut and now on Paris. They have demonstrated their capacity for destruction, but the attacks in Paris are also a way for them to keep pressure on the West, a way to say they are still active. This is very important for the recruitment of new fighters. The number of new recruits for ISIS arriving in Syria has been declining in recent months. After Paris, ISIS hopes to be more present in the minds of possible radicalized jihadists. In the future we should expect more acts of mass terrorism by suicide fighters, possibly on a big anonymous target.
It is important to be very clear that this is not a war of Muslims against Christians. All Muslims in Europe have denounced this type of terrorist act. There is no more justification in the Koran than in the Bible for this kind of attack. Why would Islam employ this type of violence when it did not do so for 13 centuries? In that sense, this is not a “clash of civilizations” but an act of terrorism against a particular government. The theory of a clash of civilizations prevents us from understanding the reality of terrorism. It also leads us to wrong answers, like the increasing number of Islamophobic acts against mosques and Muslims that are now occurring in France.
Terror, Not War
It is important to remember that this is not a war. These acts are terrorist acts. It is very important to be clear on this question because the interpretation one gives to an event will have an impact on strategy for the future. A war is a conflict between two identified and visible enemies. They know who they are and where they are and why they fight. The actors may use various means, but their weapons are employed against specific and known targets. The armies will fight against each other until one is completely defeated. You know when the war starts and when it ends. With terrorism, the enemy is invisible. It can strike anytime, anywhere. You will not be able to destroy them until you have dried up the source of their anger. And yet the reason given for their actions is often confused and vague, lost in a very ideological discourse.
The language of war also implies that targeted strikes on ISIS camps will solve the problem. This is misleading. Such air strikes might weaken ISIS, and they have done so. But that does not end terrorism. The language of war is often employed for popular consumption in an electoral campaign; it does not solve the problem. New fighters will come out of nowhere and strike again.
So we have to look more closely at the causes of terrorism. Among the individuals fighting for ISIS, there are global reasons and personal reasons.
On the global side, a preliminary question arises: why is ISIS in Syria and Iraq? This involves the long story of extreme radicalism in the Muslim world that gave birth to Al Qaeda. More recently, this radicalism gave birth to ISIS, which seeks to apply an extreme and distorted version of Islam on the territory it controls. The strength of ISIS relies on its geographic localization, which allows it access to many sources of money (like illicit traffic in all kinds of goods, including works of art, along with oil and natural gas). An identifiable location has also helped them to attract thousands of foreigners, mainly from Europe. But localization also has its weaknesses, and ISIS has become an easy target for foreign aerial bombardment.
The second question is about the recruitment of ISIS members. Who are the fighters in this conflict? Where do they come from? Let us look first at those who are coming from the Arab countries. A whole set of factors is pushing young people to radicalization. This region has been greatly destabilized over the last 20 years: the war in Iraq, the dismantling of Libya, the war in Syria after the Arab spring, the war in Yemen, which many people forget. This created a huge open space for propaganda and recruitment by ISIS.
For the people in Europe, it is different. The reasons for radicalization are related to the social unrest in many suburbs of Europe, especially in France, where there is no employment, and where great numbers of frustrated young people are concentrated in the suburbs. Three thousand Europeans (some say 6,000) have joined the ISIS army (among them at least 1,400 from France). Some of these have returned to France from Syria (some 300 of them) and are acting under ISIS influence. Their frustration is augmented by extreme political and social anger provoked by globalization, Western domination of the economic realm, and against Western values like democracy and individual freedoms. Terrorism is the answer they find because a political answer seems impossible for them.
How ISIS Recruits
The propaganda of ISIS travels through various channels in Europe. Some ISIS fighters are recruited in prison, others through the Internet, others by radical preachers. They enter into contact with ISIS members in Syria. The recruitment is followed by sectarian indoctrination, up to an extreme radicalization in which people are ready to die for their cause. Jihadism is a very strong ideology, dangerous and powerful, with a real attraction to elements of our societies. Radicalized people are not open to debate and discussion. They are immune to rational discourse. Such people should be confronted by the use of force. This does not mean that other attempts should not be made to reach out to ISIS members. Some programs of deradicalization have worked in various instances. That is why it is very important to clarify the roots of the radicalization process that leads to terrorism.
Thus, for some Europeans, terrorism is a bad answer to serious problems that they have and recognize—frustration, unemployment, outrageous inequality. How do we solve those problems? This is a question for the international community. But there are also local issues that each government, each community has to face: what do we do with our younger generation? Is our education system adequate? Is our way of organizing the cities respectful of the diversity and the need for communications between communities? Is there enough dialogue between religions so that extremism cannot flourish? Do our democracies give a voice to all, including people who feel marginalized because they have no job? In the case of France, its laïcité should be more open to real dialogue with religions instead of expelling them from the public space.
At the same time, there is a need for action at the international level. The Syrian crisis represents a total failure of the international community for four years. This cannot go on. It is essential to reach a political agreement, with or without Assad. The apparent impossibility of finding agreement with Russia on any decisive action is part of the reason for inaction. Yet the situation in Syria is so complicated that even with an agreement with Russia, it may not be possible to bring peace to the region. Over 20 years the precarious balance of power has been destroyed in Iraq, Syria and Libya, indeed throughout the Middle East, which was already a very unstable region. The old way of governance, through tribes and regional powers, has been destroyed and nothing has replaced it.
A Worldwide Threat
The attacks in Paris reveal once more a worldwide threat touching the Western world. The world will have to live for some time with terrorism. So what can we do?
Military intervention is certainly necessary against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Everything should be done to prevent it from getting more financial resources on the ground (natural gas, oil and so on). Meanwhile, protection at home is crucial: Europe is far less protected than the United States. Anybody can come from neighboring countries without hindrance. Free circulation is great for law-abiding people in Europe, but terrorists will take advantage. And the security budgets in Europe are very low compared with the United States. The U.S. security budget is $46 billion per year; all of Europe spends less than 5 percent of that figure. It is incredible that the authors of the Paris attacks were able to go from one country to another with bombs, grenades and other heavy material without being noticed.
Meanwhile, we cannot leave the burden of response to each country separately. Europe must act in a unified manner. But many nations refuse to accept a common policy in order to face a common crisis. A simple coordination of intelligence would have avoided a blunder that was made by the French police: they stopped the car with the only surviving author of the attack, Salah Abdeslam. Since he was not in their files, they let him go, although he was known to the Belgian police.
A just response must also include a fair policy for refugees. It would be far too easy just to say “Security, security!” and to refuse the millions of people flocking to Europe. We have a duty toward this population, which is paying a very heavy price for a war they never wanted and that the international community is not able to solve. They should be screened like any other people entering Europe, but they should not be targeted unjustly.
Protection is essential. But protection alone is not sufficient to prevent young people entering the deadly circle of ISIS. Terrorism is created by people, not by governments. The agents of ISIS are free people entering freely into a deadly dynamic. One of the duties of government is to prevent people from entering that deadly circle. Changes will have to be made in the West, in our own management of marginalized people and in our globalized world, if we want to destroy the roots of terrorism.