The latest terror outrage – this time at several locations throughout Paris – pushes J. BROOKS SPECTOR to contemplate the origins of this horror and to consider whether there is an easy way out for the nations that must endure this.
It may not be necessary to be a true believer of Sam Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” theory to be profoundly distressed as one thinks through the likely implications of the latest outrages in Paris. Shortly after the end of the cold war, Huntington had written, in thinking ahead to the shape of the world but based on deeper circumstances, “…the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future. Conflict between civilizations will be the latest phase in the evolution of conflict in the modern world….”
The multiple attacks with automatic weapons and explosive devices on restaurants and a concert hall with its capacity crowd, managed to shut down Paris, and France, on Friday night. Into Saturday, much of the city’s cultural and entertainment infrastructure remained under lockdown – including even the Euro Disney amusement park located some distance outside Paris.
With the death toll now at 128 people, messages of support and sympathy have been quick in arriving from many world leaders. Typical were Barack Obama’s remarks, “This is an attack not just on Paris, it’s an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share. We stand prepared and ready to provide whatever assistance that the government and the people of France need to respond.” And South African President Jacob Zuma had said his nation “stands firmly with the rest of the international community in its condemnation of attacks targeting innocent civilians and reiterates its stance that terrorism, in whatever form and from whichever quarter, cannot be condoned.”
Once the gravity of the events became clear (and after French President François Hollande, himself, had had to be evacuated from the stadium where he had been attending a French-German football friendly match), he had told his nation and the world that the French response to these attacks would be merciless. He then declared a state of emergency, announced renewed checks along French borders normally open under Europe’s free-travel zone, and added, “A determined France, a united France, a France that joins together and a France that will not allow itself to be staggered even if today, there is infinite emotion faced with this disaster, this tragedy, which is an abomination, because it is barbarism.”
The New York Times had earlier reported, “President François Hollande called the terrorist attacks that killed 127 people in Paris on Friday night an ‘act of war,’ and blamed the slaughter on the Islamic State. ‘It is an act of war that was committed by a terrorist army, a jihadist army, Daesh, against France,’ Mr. Hollande said from the Élysée Palace, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. ‘It is an act of war that was prepared, organized and planned from abroad, with complicity from the inside, which the investigation will help establish.’ ”
Meanwhile, Islamic State social media statements sought to claim credit for the killings, implying that they (or perhaps their sympathisers or allies) were responsible for these well organised, simultaneous acts. And these latest claims seemed to echo IS’ earlier claim of responsibility for deadly bomb attacks in Beirut that had come only a few days earlier.
In the immediate aftermath of this Parisian attack, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had cancelled his upcoming visit to France (thereby putting paid to any question about whether or not there would have been wine on any mealtime tables that had earlier been a bone of contention in the planning of the visit). And the French president cancelled his own participation in the G20 summit in Antalya, Turkey, a gathering poised to start almost momentarily. Nevertheless, despite his absence, in this G20 meeting, global terror will inevitably claim a much larger place on the agenda (both among the leaders as well as in all those subsidiary conversations among experts, senior staffers and miscellaneous policy wonks and commentators) than might have been expected earlier, given the more usual pride of place for global economic issues at a G20 meeting, in comparison with global geopolitical questions like terror. Meanwhile, it may well be that these attacks will also throw into some disarray plans for the major global climate conference, COP 21, set for Paris in just a few weeks time in this December, given the truly extraordinary security architecture of people and protection that will now need to be put in place, what with all those global delegations and world leaders due to participate in that meeting.
But, of course, the more far-reaching question of how the world’s nations must react in future in order to deal with the deeper roots of events like Paris’ 13 November night of chaos and terror. First, of course, will come the intensive international efforts to track down the movements of these killers, then to link to any others who helped them plan their efforts, and then, eventually, to trace these connections back to more distant support and those who equipped and trained them. Already, there are news reports of a trail that reaches into Germany – where some place in that nation may have been the bolthole for yet others involved in these killings.
Depending on how one’s social media discussion flows, one can take one’s pick of some rather bizarre responses to these deeds. Inevitably, some are already arguing the whole thing was a massive, bloody “false flag” operation ultimately at the hands of some group like Mossad, the Deuxieme Bureau, MI 6, the FSB, or the CIA – determined to stir up further hatreds against refugees and/or Islam – or both.
Yet other threads run towards the wholesale blaming Islam – and each and every Muslim for these deeds – and all others like them. For these advocates, the beheading outrages by Mohammed Emwazi (or “Jihadi John” as he became known) against people caught in IS-controlled territory stand as picture perfect examples of the perfidy of all Muslims.
Predictably, too, some are pointing to these acts as if they are simply the inevitable retribution (and, indeed, an almost excusable one) following from a litany of western atrocities against Islamic societies, dating back to the crusades – and as if these latest killings were part of a kind of mandated divine wind. Most recently those acts have included France’s combat in the Sahel against Islamicist fundamentalists or the efforts of the larger coalition (including France) operating air attacks against ISIS in Syria and northern Iraq. And Russia is now being named as well, both for its earlier actions against the Chechens, as well as its bombing activities in Syria. As a result, the downing of the Russian passenger airliner from Sharm el-Sheikh to St Petersburg was part of this righteous campaign against European states as well.
In a similar vein, some have inevitably picked up the argument that if the US could simply bring Binyamin Netanyahu’s Israel to heel, all would be well and the sources of anger in Islamic countries such as Iraq and Syria would melt away. This is being bandied about even if such a view virtually ignores the endogenous sources of so much of the deadly conflict in those same states.
But more rational heads are already thinking even harder than before about what to do in the real world to forestall more such atrocities in the future. A very real part of the problem, of course, is that it is not just one group of actors that is carrying out these acts. There is no one headquarters bunker to be destroyed or captured. There are more than just one set of sponsors and weapons suppliers, just as there is more than one cause (even if they do have threads in common). Moreover, there is the awkward, complicated fact that while some of these perpetrators may hail from conflict zones in the Middle East or South Asia, yet others may well be “home-grown”, albeit with a distinct probability they have antecedents from the places where the conflicts are now.
Or, as the most recent issue of The Economist notes, “The ease with which such recruits have been able to travel to IS’s stronghold in Raqqa, Syria by just getting a plane ticket to Turkey and then continuing by road is not quite matched by their ability to return to their homes. Security agencies and police do their best to monitor them and prosecute them if they have evidence. But it is estimated that at least half the jihadists who have gone to Syria in the past four years have come back hardened, brutalised and plugged into technically savvy support networks. In both France and Britain, there may be around 400-500 such people.
“To them can be added unknown numbers of radicalised individuals who have never left home, but are persuaded by the ceaseless flow of jihadist propaganda on social media to carry out so-called “lone wolf” attacks. Although Ayoub El-Khazzani, the young man who attempted to massacre passengers on a train in Belgium last August was a Moroccan national, he could just as easily have been a radicalised local. Lone-wolf attackers are regarded as a particularly acute problem by security agencies because of their sheer unpredictability and the impossibility of keeping all those with the potential to carry out such attacks under surveillance.”
Accordingly, governments that vow to take action are left with the difficult problem of tracking down and dealing with those who have carried out these actions, wherever they are, but without further enflaming the very societies that help give rise to such people – and the places they have then gone to for their military training or actual fighting experience. Simultaneously, of course, is clearly impossible to rebuild entire states into a kind of vision of the West with palm trees – a lesson that has been painfully learned in places as disparate as Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Libya.
At the same time, however, it is also impossible – not least for domestic political reasons if there are repeated outrages on home turf – to totally ignore or wash hands of these conflict zones, since that would seem to encourage yet other attackers. (And in the US and Europe both, such inaction could well be seen by centrist politicians as allowing the creation of fertile ground for rabble-rousing, nativist populists like Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, and various nationalist politicians across Southern and Eastern Europe.)
The problem, then, is not just who to tackle, but also the level of proportionality of force that will be employed to do anything. Inevitably, the discussion will now turn to the default position for more “boots on the ground” in the territory surrounding ISIS-held lands to stamp out this menace once and for all. There will inevitably be demands for more intensified bombing campaigns. There will be more consideration of or actual tacit agreement for greater cooperation with Russia in dealing with ISIS, along with a kind of grudging acceptance of Bashir al-Assad’s murderous regime’s position in what is left of Syria.
But there will also be greater pushes for more intrusive domestic security efforts to smoke out such perpetrators before they act. And that implies a new version of conflict between the expectation and rights to privacy, freedom of movement, access to the mechanisms of free speech (including hate speech) that had become the hallmark of western European nations poised against the need for more monitoring, more security and more intrusions.
Back in the 1880s through the early 1900s, Europe (and to a lesser degree in America) endured a wave of terror activity – including bombs thrown, and rulers and high officials assassinated. This largely found its roots in the ideologies of, variously, extremist nationalism and Marxist-socialism, together with the dislocations of rapid industrialisation and the growth of a large urban working class. These movements only gave way – temporarily – with the onset of World War I. They returned with even greater force by the end of that war, and then on to the collapse of Europe’s old order.
Perhaps the globe must still endure the periodic outbreaks of such violence and increasingly forceful efforts to battle it back down – fuelled by the many conflicts in the Middle East – for years more to come until a new order takes root in the Middle East. And so, maybe Europe’s citizens must come to accept the costs as well as the infringements of civil liberties and life that will be a part of such an effort to push back against urban terror. And just perhaps, despite all the naysayers he encountered when he first broached his idea, maybe Sam Huntington and his view about the inevitable clash of civilizations was on to something both real and terrible after all, something that helps us understand what is happening now, even if his hypothesis offers precious few solutions to help us get out of this, current and real, mess. DM
Photo: A soldier patrols under the Eiffel tower in Paris, France, 14 November 2015. The French government declared a state of emergency, tightened border controls and mobilized 1,500 soldiers in consequence to the 13 November Paris attacks. At least 120 people have been killed in a series of attacks in Paris on 13 November, according to French officials. Eight assailants were killed, seven when they detonated their explosive belts, and one when he was shot by officers, police said. EPA/GUILLAUME HORCAJUELO.