By Dileep Padgaonkar
November 16, 2015
Arguably the most galling fact about the massacre in Paris on Friday night is this: French intelligence agencies had not only expected it, but they had also taken measures to face it.
Speaking to the conservative daily Le Figaro, counter-terrorism experts claimed that a terror attack on this scale and intensity was indeed the “ultimate scenario” they had envisaged. Drawing on experiences of other countries that had experienced terror attacks in recent years, notably Spain and Russia; they were certain that sooner than later there would be a strike far more lethal than the cold-blooded murder of the journalists of Charlie Hebdo and of others in a Jewish mall in January.
Even more prescient is what Marc Trevedic, a former judge in charge of anti-terror cases, had to tell the newspaper. When he was compelled to quit his job in Paris, against his wishes, he had warned that men who belonged to the Daech organisation – a synonym for ISIS – have both the ambition and the means to attack France with greater vigour than in the past.
Horrible carnages await us, he declared, carnages worse than any other that have been perpetrated so far. And Trevedic went on to add: “The darkest days are ahead of us.”
According to French counter-terrorism experts, as many as 571 French jihadists who fought with ISIS in Syria and returned to France were “time bombs”. From June 2011 onwards the police had organised mock exercises in Paris that involved three terror attacks and two incidents of mass kidnappings. The special task force had scanned some 200 public places which could be vulnerable. They included not only buildings that housed the offices and residences of the president and the prime minister and the Senate and the National Assembly but also a number of concert halls.
That this massive effort proved futile should have generated much adverse comment in the media. But that did not happen. What one heard instead was effusive praise for the swift response of the police to rush succour to the victims. The response of the public was equally impressive. After initial moments of panic, people followed police instructions to the tee with the utmost calm.
The first reactions of the habitually fractious media commentators revealed a “republican solidarity” that they have rarely shown in the past. All were unanimous in saying that the terrorists had plumbed the depths of barbarism. Not since World War II had violence been witnessed on such a scale.
In January the terrorists had aimed at specific targets. This time however the killings were random though the choice of places where they occurred left no one in doubt about the intent of the killers: a concert hall, restaurants, a football stadium.
Here is where Parisians gather for entertainment and conviviality. The message the terrorists sent could not have been clearer: henceforth the French would be threatened as they go about living their daily life or pursue their simple pleasures.
The instant expressions of sympathy for the victims and of solidarity with the people of France from world leaders – including Prime Minister Narendra Modi – doubtless drove home the message that France is not alone in the struggle to counter the most heinous menace of our times: jihadi terrorism.
Ways to wage the struggle are however not quite clear. An editorial in the left-wing daily Liberation said all the right things in the right tone: French society must be armed with enough courage to confront the killers, to show vigilance at all times and to demonstrate its indestructible will to face the horror within the framework of legal principles.
All this is fine as far as it goes but Friday’s massacre calls for translating lofty sentiments into co-ordinated action worldwide to eradicate terrorism of every stripe. The massacre, it is clear, was, in the immediate context, a riposte to France’s role in Syria. That role, shared by other western powers, is neither fish nor fowl.
You cannot battle the forces of the Islamic State and simultaneously seek a regime change in Damascus. You cannot fight Jihadi terror and continue to cosy up to countries that finance, arm and train terror groups.
In a wider context, you cannot refer to ‘root causes’ – the Crusades, colonialism, neo-colonialism, capitalism and so forth – to go soft on a barbarism that is hell-bent on the destruction of free societies.
Those causes – that also include the alienation, frustration and anger of Muslim youth born and bred in Europe – must surely be addressed. But this is bound to be a complex and long drawn-out process. The priority right now is to strike hard wherever and whenever terror raises its monstrous head. That demands unity within countries and sustained cooperation between them.
A failure on both counts would unleash a tidal wave against European Muslims which can only benefit extreme right-wing parties. That, in turn, would further radicalise Muslim youth. The spectre of a bloody civil war will then haunt not only the Old Continent – which has just welcomed thousands of Muslim refugees – but wherever the Jihadis have spread their tentacles. The time of reckoning is here and now.