The attacks in Paris remind us all again of the specter of terrorism and vigilante violence on a massive scale – but whether or not we will take heed of the lessons in that regard is another question. The signs are not altogether encouraging in that regard - not in Europe, not in the region, and not in the broader international community.
The day of the Paris attacks, I was in Tunisia – a country that had seen its own terrorist atrocities a few months ago in the attack on the Bardo Museum in March this year, and near Sousse in June. It’s a country that almost precisely five years ago saw the beginning of the Arab revolutionary uprisings – and out of all of them, the Tunisian uprising delivered the greatest prize thus far. A consensus-based, progressive constitution, and a political arena where no-one thinks that zero-sum games work. As a result, one hopes, Tunisia will be resilient against militant threats by groups like ISIS – and thus far, Tunisians have shown their mettle. Libya is in the midst of a great conflict; Syria far worse; and Egypt, while having been spared the sort of internecine warfare of Syria or Libya, is facing a dire set of security problems that far too many in the international community worry Cairo is handling badly.
But if Paris teaches us anything, it is the repetition of the reminder that vigilante violence can strike anywhere. It was true in London in 2005, when July 7 happened; it was true in Madrid, in March of 2004; and there were other incidents, and will likely be many more.
Much of the world in 2015 – be it the Western world, or Muslim majority states – cannot be under any illusion. Vigilante action by radical groups is not a threat that can be avoided – that is the reality. The task now is to ensure that societies remain resilient when such actions do take place – and take steps to minimize their occurrences.
Politicians and political actors have, unfortunately, the malaise of reacting to crises as they happen, and seldom looking a year or two down the roadH.A. Hellyer
There is no single headquarters that the international community can remove or demolish that will result in the end of violent extremism. That is not to say that engaging the problem of ISIS has no military component – on the contrary, there will have to be a hard security solution aspect in order to address the phenomenon of ISIS. But even if Raqqa were conquered by anti-ISIS forces tomorrow, and the entire territory currently held by ISIS in Iraq and Syria were released by ISIS forces, the threat of violence from their supporters would continue. The world needs to recognize that the campaign is a long one indeed.
As that campaign is waged, however, we have to consider our response to incidents as they occur. That is true for us in the West, as well as within the heartlands of the Muslim world.
Within fairly short order, we’ve seen the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment intensify. That was expressed in actual physical attacks, which a noted watch-dog in the UK reported in the aftermath of the French tragedy – it was also made clearly evident by the calls in the U.S. Republican camp, where it seemed presidential candidates were competing in their race to the bottom. Jeb Bush, one of the leading candidates, declared that Syrian refugees ought to be subjected to a religious test – and that Christians Syrians should be the ones allowed in. Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, calling for some kind of ‘register’ for Muslim Americans. These are not terribly isolated political statements – and the sentiment is mainstreaming on a regular basis. In the aftermath of Paris, two CNN anchors almost doggedly accused an anti-Islamophobia campaigner in Paris of denying collective French Muslim responsibility for the attacks – to his credit, he stood his ground, pointing out that French Muslims en masse rejected these attacked. But it was deeply concerning to see such a discourse being promulgated on a respectable television channel of that nature.
Within Muslim majority states, many of them do not need to be taught the lessons of Paris, but merely reminded of them. Before Paris, there was Beirut, and there was Baghdad – to name but two examples. Resilience in those countries is paramount – but resilience in other countries is being called into question. What will happen if what took place in Paris, God forbid, takes place in Cairo, or Bahrain, or Kuwait, or elsewhere in the region? What will the response be, beyond the predictable security retort?
Is there a recognition of the legitimate social and political grievances that exist – not simply in Syria, but far beyond it, across the Arab world? That these grievances are key elements in any recruitment strategy for ISIS? Is there a realization that the ideological underpinnings of ISIS-style ideology continues to find inspiration in a reading of an interpretation of Salafi thought? Or are we to continue thinking that ISIS essentially came out of a vacuum?
Politicians and political actors have, unfortunately, the malaise of reacting to crises as they happen, and seldom looking a year or two down the road. But the road ahead is of deep concern to any who examine the region closely –and we ought to try to pre-empt if we can, and minimize damage if we cannot, from any problems that are on the way. Make no mistake: they are on the way.
Dr H.A. Hellyer is Senior nonresident Fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council in DC, and Associate Fellow in International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. Before joining the Council, he was appointed nonresident Fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in DC, and Research Associate at the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. During his tenure at the University of Warwick (UK) as Fellow & then Senior Research Fellow, Dr Hellyer was appointed as Deputy Convenor of the UK Government's Taskforce for the 2005 London bombings, and served as the Foreign & Commonwealth Office's (FCO) first ESRC Fellow as part of the "Islam & Counter-Terrorism" teams with FCO security clearance, as a non-civil servant.