By Happymon Jacob
November 16, 2015
French fire brigade members aid an injured man near the Bataclan concert hall following fatal shootings in Paris.
There is a need to put the Paris attack in the proper historical and political context, lest we treat this as a one-off incident and move on
Terror has struck France for the second time this year, this time with even more damage and loss of innocent lives, from soccer fans to diners. The global reach of terrorism is no more a theoretical possibility: it’s right at your doorstep whether you live in Paris, Mumbai, Baghdad or Beirut. The French Republic has decided to view it as an act of war carried out by Islamic State (Daesh) with internal help, and stated that the French response would be merciless.
The January attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris and the attack on Friday night differ in terms of scale, planning, target and intent. In January, the intent was to teach the Charlie Hebdo journalists a lesson for drawing a cartoon of Prophet Muhammad. The attack did not seem to have a great deal of pre-planning, the targets were specific, and the aim limited. The 13/11 Paris attack is large-scale killing, targeted against the general public; intended to spread terror and to convey that the French would pay for their war efforts in Syria right inside the French heartland — a great deal of planning has clearly gone into its execution.
Even as we mourn the condemnable loss of innocent civilian lives in Paris there is a need to put this horrific attack in the proper historical and political context, lest we treat this as a one-off incident and move on.
Targeting the West
Daesh itself may be a new reality but the Western focus of the jihadi terror groups is not a new phenomenon. The deadliest terror attack of the decade was the al-Qaeda-inspired attack in Madrid (2004) in which 191 lives were lost. This was followed by the less intense ones in London (2005), Norway (2011), Toulouse in France (2012), Brussels (2014) and the January attack against Charlie Hebdo. This shows two things. One, the geopolitical developments in West Asia and Afghanistan post-9/11, and in the backdrop of the Iraq war, have had deadly implications for the West. And two, while organisations that carry out these attacks have changed over time, the pattern and modus operandi of these attacks have remained unchanged.
Whatever you call the terror outfit, anti-Western grievances persist. For the Western countries, this means that their foreign policies would now have consequences — both in terms of their citizens being targeted within the safety of their own countries, as well as the domestic political implications (how, for instance, José María Aznar’s People’s Party was defeated in the Spanish elections in the wake of the Madrid terror attacks).
Within the West, France has become a major target of the Islamist terror outfits, especially the Daesh, for a number of reasons. For one, France has been at the forefront of the ongoing operations against the Daesh in Syria, even as the Barack Obama administration is not wholeheartedly participating in the anti-Daesh campaign. And two, while France has one of the largest Muslim populations in Europe, its Muslim minority remains less integrated into the national mainstream and has grievances against the French government’s not-so-friendly way of mainstreaming them.
A significant, and seemingly successful, modus operandi of contemporary jihadi terrorism is to get the ideologically inclined to virtually ‘sign up’ for the jihadi cause and outsource the staging of attacks to these individuals and groups without direct links to the organisational structures of the terror group.
The other method is to use the battle-hardened returnees to carry out strikes. A recent UN report indicated that around 4,000 foreign fighters of West European origin are based in Syria. Another report by the Brookings Institution claimed that around 1,500 fighters of French origin are currently in Syria. If these figures are anything to go by, there are likely to be many more attempts to target Western cities in the days ahead. Holding huge cities hostage using shock-and-awe terror tactics, as witnessed in Paris, is yet another strategy with the potential of directing domestic political outcomes (a la Spain).
The difference between the attacks in India by Pakistan-based terror groups, like the one on Mumbai, and the Paris attacks seems to be the presence of external handlers. Though both attacks displayed high levels of sophisticated planning and execution, the former was planned and directed by the LeT leadership based in Pakistan, and the Paris attacks seems to be have been self-directed.
Roots of Terror
It is unfashionable today to talk about ‘root causes’ when discussing strategies to counter terror: the immediate reaction is to declare a war on terror. And yet our inability to go beyond a symptomatic analysis while dealing with terror does indeed contribute to entrenching the motives behind terrorism. There is only so much we can achieve by using force against apocalyptic ideologies, and that is precisely why getting to the root causes of the financial, political and ideological ecosystem that sustains the global jihad is extremely important.
Daesh, for sure, is pure evil, and needs to be defeated for humanity’s sake; but critical questions need to be asked, also for humanity’s sake, about the many wars on terror and convenient wars of intervention that the Western nations are currently engaged in. Clearly, the ill-conceived war on terror is coming back to haunt the West, and the Paris attack is a direct fallout.
So let’s hope the French President does not mean to start a war on terror like the one George W. Bush started in 2001 when he says that the French “will wage a ‘pitiless’ fight against terrorism”. Yes, they should fight terror, but they should also accept moral responsibility for the unjustifiable destruction of West Asia leading to the annihilation of established state structures in many countries that have made terrorism a cottage industry in the region.
The carnage in Paris should not be allowed to accentuate the refugee crisis in Europe. It is important for Europe to proactively integrate the refugees: it is not enough to give them shelter, their quest for identity and belonging should also be addressed. Respect for multiculturalism should form the basis of the process of integrating refugees.
Daesh is a clear and present danger to India, a stark reality our government does not seem to have woken up to. We should, therefore, address this threat before it decides to focus on us. Our technological, material and human resource preparedness to deal with terror continues to be abysmal, and the government’s preoccupation does not seem to go beyond branding a particular community as being more “soft on terror”.
Despite 26/11, the Indian intelligence agencies continue to be ill-equipped to prevent future attacks. Let’s face it: we can’t prevent Mumbai-like attacks by merely issuing high-pitched threats to Pakistan; we need to put our house in order first.
India should therefore, check extremism of all kinds, irrespective of its religious colour, equip and constantly monitor the agencies, preferably by a joint parliamentary committee, proactively involve communities in fighting terror, and more importantly, the ruling BJP government in New Delhi should send out the correct political message that terror has no religion.
Happymon Jacob teaches Disarmament and National Security at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
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