By Syed Ata Hasnain
14 Nov, 2015
From Syria and Iraq to Paris is a fair distance; so was it from Tora Bora to New York, in fact much longer. Yet, high-profile terror acts with mass casualties as the intent of the terrorists, have a deep connect with events far away from the target center. More on this later
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It is deeply regrettable that over 160 innocent lives have been lost in Paris at the hands of terrorists who are obviously radically motivated and have no qualms about their targets in their aim to achieve what they wish. This is the second time in a year that the beautiful city of Paris is being targeted in this manner. There are reasons why it is happening, and that is for us to identify. Most of this is well known but each time tragedies are played out against innocent people it is important to revisit the issue and iron out some misnomers that emotional responses create, post such an event.
Firstly, no claimants for the dastardly act. The finger of circumstantial evidence points to Islamist groups. Daesh (Islamic State) leads the list because somehow French footprint within its ranks is high. Unconfirmed sources put it as 1200 against the total European presence of 5000. Al Qaeda (AQ) cannot be far behind although most of the world seems to have forgotten bin Laden’s group in the light of the events in the Middle East in the last 18 months. It may be low-key but not down and out. At some stage it will re-emerge once it has leadership; its networks could not have dried up yet. A high profile violent attack with mass casualties is the signature attempt of most transnational terror groups which wish to herald their arrival or their return. So I would still keep AQ within my focus while investigating.
What is the linkage of Middle East to Europe?
Now this bit is for late arrivals in the understanding of the terror game. The turbulence of the Arab Spring and the subsequent civil wars is creating problems of survivability for vulnerable populations. There is mass migration towards Europe to seek a better life. This is also linked to the prevailing conditions in a large mass of territory in Iraq and Syria. Radical Islam has come to contest its survival in the Middle East and equally seeks its spread to Europe amongst expatriate populations from the Middle East and existing Muslims from other regions. Europe’s liberal immigration policies of the past and equally liberal democratic values have added to its woes. With an aging population and higher standards of living, it threw open its doors to expatriates from the Middle East. Vikram Karve, one of my Facebook friends and an ex-Naval officer of repute states –
I feel Europe will suffer due to its liberal immigration policies which encourage undesirable elements to enter and settle.
There may have been a compulsion but also an unrealized potential for societal turbulence arising from immigration. On a visit to Garre du Nord railway station in Paris some years ago me and my family, while taking in the delights of the wonderful French capital also perceived that the surroundings of the heritage railway station were strangely no longer French. There was a sea of faces from North Africa everywhere. It was not a comforting scene with semi-poverty like conditions in the heart of the capital of a city of the developed world. That the expatriates were hardly an integrated part of society was obvious even to our eyes.
Usually, first generation expatriates anywhere are loyal to the host state, thankful for the assistance in any form for a better life than back home. They tend to live in ghettoized form to retain their homogeneity and national culture away from home, as it is unnerving to be in alien conditions. The second and subsequent generations have a problem. They usually wish to be integrated but find doors closed and host governments not too endearing, and that is where the problem lies.
Alienation promotes radicalization of any kind and, in this case it is ideological and religious. The immigrant problem of Europe is not something which can be wished away easily or resolved. The problem is only enhancing with large segments of population attempting to get into Europe. Europeans perceive that their values are eroding and their lifestyles likely to be affected by the society becoming more heterogeneous.
To stabilize Europe, you also need to stabilize the Middle East. Times such as these throw-up beliefs that the problems were created by the unnecessary intervention in Middle East politics, regime changes and then the inability of ensuring proper conflict termination before exit. Iraq is the classic case which led to the spawning of Daesh and its spread into Syria. The inability to control it and the lack of intent displayed in militarily crushing it has led to further problems. Daesh has transnational ambitions which go far beyond the boundaries of the Middle East. It aims at destroying Western civilization even as it concentrates on stabilizing itself in Syria and Iraq. To display its muscle and reach it must demonstrate its kinetic capability from time to time. That it probably has done, through this attempt in Paris.
There appears some vulnerability about Paris and why Daesh or any other terror organization involved, senses that. The French Gendarmerie and Army are reputed as total professionals, but their skills are relevant after or during terror strikes. The acme of effectiveness is prevention, and that can only happen with high-quality intelligence. The US was ruthless with this after 9/11, giving no quarters to compromise. Is France suspected to be soft and less prepared from an intelligence angle? UK ensured that after 7/7 it tightened its traditionally sound intelligence system even further.
This may be an unfair commentary on French intelligence services, but equally the blame must lie on the insufficient cooperation within the European Union. We may also like to examine whether the type of expatriate presence makes a difference. My information reveals that expatriates in France are largely from North Africa, the traditional Francophone states while those in Germany are largely from Turkey and now increasingly from Syria. The radicalization of North African Islamic expatriates may be easier than others.
That 8-10 men with weapons, grenades and bombs can appear on Paris streets with impunity is unfortunate. However, to put an end to this France will have to be extremely careful in response. Demands for retribution against expatriates will be many. Authorities must remember the ‘action-reaction theory’ and how it plays out in the field of counter-terror responses. Harsh measures against the expatriates will be counterproductive and only add to alienation.
This attack in Paris must not be viewed as a French problem. It is a problem for Europe and for rest of the world. The faster the world gets its act together against the Daesh in the Middle East faster it will resolve. After Russia’s high-profile entry, the situation for Daesh appears to be business as usual. The inability of the US and Russia to see the emerging threats in joint focus and their sticking to positions on various issues is going to prevent this. The G 20 Summit coming up shortly should be utilized to put aside differences and for once have the US and Russia putting together their military might for the sake of humanity. Hopefully France, known for its very independent strategic thinking can lead the campaign to bring the bigger powers together.
Social media is as much a villain as it is a hero. It is exploited to the hilt for the radicalization and recruitment process. Equally there is need to develop advanced technologies for deep data mining for potential threats. The US proficiency in this field is extremely high as much as its ruthlessness in follow-ups to inputs gained from social media. European nations will have to follow suit but with enough balance. Anyone who has been a part of counter-terrorist operations understands that the aim of the terrorists is to force retribution and strict counter-intelligence measures so that alienation increases and so does radicalism. It is this Catch 22 situation which western nations have to keep in mind right through.
Lt. Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd) is the former Corps Commander of the Srinagar based 15 Corps, and is currently associated with Vivekanand International Foundation and the Delhi Policy Group, two major strategic think tanks of Delhi.
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