Paris 7-8 January: Darkness in the City of Light9 Jan 2015
1. The Attacks
The attack on Wednesday 7 January on the satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo”, killing twelve and wounding eight, four of whom are said to be in critical condition, sent shockwaves through France and the rest of the world. The chilling images of masked gunmen assassinating a wounded policeman begging for mercy at close range, illustrate what it must have felt like for the magazine’s editors when the assassins entered the boardroom, separated the men and women, called on the men to identify themselves, and fired. The murderers had a plan and executed it, killing their targets and whoever got in their way, in cold blood. The next morning, another armed man shot dead a policewoman, fled, and is still at large.
While security has been stepped up, the French response has been defiant, unified and steadfast: an attack on Charlie is an attack on us all: “Je Suis Charlie”. 24/7 live coverage, shows of solidarity from world leaders, along with big statements defending freedom of speech, values, liberty and even civilisation put the attack in a much broader context, reminiscent of the post 9/11 “War on Terror”. However, calls for unity appear short-lived: already, right-wing anti-immigration parties in France and across Europe are attempting to capitalise on the strong emotions and score points for themselves, in disregard for the victims.
At the time of writing, French anti-terrorism units are closing in on two suspects in the Picardie area. But key questions remain: who carried out this terrorist attack? Why? Did they act alone or under instructions? How come the security services, which had foiled other terrorist plots in the past, and admitted that they had been monitoring the suspects, one of whom even has a Jihadist track record, miss out on this one? We know that the satirical magazine was on Al Qaida in the Arab Peninsula’s hit-list. We also heard the attackers telling bystanders that they belonged to Al Qaida in Yemen. They appear to be well equipped and knew how to handle a Kalashnikov. And we know that attacks such as these are usually based on careful preparation. Even more so, if you consider that at least one of the suspects was under surveillance. Speculation is rife, and not necessarily helpful either. We need to know the answers soon, and learn from them, if we are to avoid repeating past mistakes.
2. Did We See This Coming?
For quite a while, terrorism watchers and security services have been issuing warnings that the risk of a terrorist attack on European soil was on the rise. Accordingly, threat levels were reassessed and where necessary, heightened. Originally, Al Qaida-affiliates and cells were most feared; later, battle-hardened returning foreign fighters from Syria and Iraq willing to take up arms against their own countrymen, added fuel to the fire. Legislation was reviewed and in some countries, additional – oftentimes controversial – powers were granted to the executive branch, in an attempt to curtail the perceived risks. Such was the case also in France, when in November 2014 an overwhelming majority of the Assemblee Generale approved a fourteenth (!) amendment since 1986 to France’s anti-terrorism legislation. However, the fact remains, and security experts confirm this, that no country – even the most “securitised” ones, such as Israel or the US – can defend itself against targeted attacks of this nature. In this day and age, terrorism has become a fact of life, something we must learn to live with. But more “security” isn’t the answer.
3. Why Paris?
Was this a random attack in a random country? Definitely not. The Charlie Hebdo magazine had already been attacked in 2011 and its chief editor Stephane Charbonnier had an experienced bodyguard in place. Moreover, France has a long history of terrorism, e.g. anarchists and left wing extremists before the second world war, separatist Basques and Corsicans in the 70s and 80s, as well as attacks against French interests and citizens in its former colonies in Northern Africa and the Sahel in the 90s and beyond. France was also an active member in ISAF, in the war in Libya, and continues to be involved in the military intervention against Al Qaida affiliated groups in Mali (operation Serval) and the Sahel (operation Barkhane), as well as in the coalition against ISIL. Internally, France has one of the largest Muslim communities, many of whom live in the impoverished slums in the “banlieues” of Paris and other cities. For Jihadist groups, France is a logical and legitimate target. And no greater prize than to attack France in the heart, at broad daylight, which is precisely what happened.
4. After Paris, What’s Next?
Don’t expect any changes in Western foreign policy towards the Arab or Muslim world. Not only because it would be perceived as surrendering to terrorism, but also because the stakes are too high. The resolve of the military coalition against ISIL may even be strengthened by these terrorist attacks. Which, in a perverse way, may even constitute one of the ulterior motives behind these terrorist attacks: to draw us further and further into an unwinnable war. The post 9/11 war on terror has cost the US taxpayer US$ 1.6 trillion, and look where we are today.
Do expect backlash and more incidents. Already, retaliatory attacks on Muslim sites are occurring. Islamophobia is on the rise in Europe, and despite their strong condemnations of jihadist groups, many Muslims in France and elsewhere now fear for their own safety. The risk of “copy-cats”, having been inspired by the attacks, has increased. Lone wolves, but also sleeping cells, may now come out of hibernation and strike.
Also, don’t be surprised if today’s unity soon makes way for further polarisation. The political debate on domestic issues such as immigration, integration, Islam and jihadism, security and civil rights including freedom of speech, symptoms and causes, repression and prevention, will flare up. Populist parties will call for harsh measures, to which moderate (governing and opposition) parties will respond by shifting to the right. Debate is necessary and should be welcomed – provided it’s evidence-based, and not hijacked by untested assumptions, sound bites and quick fixes.
So rather than adopting more repressive laws to deal with radicalisation, violent extremism and terrorism, policy makers should draw lessons from past experience. Evidence shows that the best way to deal with these phenomena is through prevention and compliance with human rights and the rule of law. In fact, repressive measures contradict fundamental values. And while repressive measures can sometimes have immediate security benefits, in the long run, they can also undermine the legitimacy of the counter-terrorism effort in the eyes of the communities that terrorist organisations claim to represent, which could strengthen the terrorist cause. Empirical data indicates that the perceived legitimacy of counter-terrorism policies is the primary factor shaping the willingness of Muslim communities in the US and the UK to support and help. Aggressive counter-terrorism policies, on the other hand, have had the effect of alienating Muslim communities everywhere.
We should never allow the attacks in Paris on civil rights and liberties to open up another Pandora’s box of draconian measures that, in the end, only serve to limit the foundations of our societies and render us more vulnerable.