Paris must not do what Washington did after 9/11

In terrorizing, terrorists must now again not force the West into a series of cataclysmic mistakes

Dr. John C. Hulsman
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It is early, very early, to make any definitive statements about the Paris terror attacks of last night. But as I used to say—in the countless counter-terror meetings I attended in Washington following 9/11—I am paid to speculate, so I shall. For counter-intuitively, informed speculation can provide a useful framework for analysis as the real world facts dribble in, constructing a paradigm based on first principles that can help us master where the West should go from here in policy terms in combating our enemies.

Goal of terrorism

Simply put—but far too often forgotten—the goal of terrorism is to terrorize, to so emotionally throw one’s enemy off balance that they begin to make horrendous mistakes which suit the terrorist’s purposes. The humanly understandable (but in policy terms unforgivable) sin of over-reaction is the most likely benefit terrorists everywhere derive from their acts of violence. Surely, following the carnage of 9/11, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda couldn’t believe their luck as the rightly enraged Bush administration committed one folly after another, leading directly to the debacle in Iraq. As such, above all in this terrible moment, we must calmly think through what the terrorists want us to do, and deny that to them, if we are to triumph.


In terrorizing, terrorists must now again not force the West into a series of cataclysmic mistakes

Dr. John C. Hulsman

The facts, as we know them on Saturday morning, are these. At least 128 people have been killed and 180 injured in Paris as a result of seven closely coordinated attacks across the city, including 118 people dying in the single terrorist incursion at the Bataclan concert hall. At least eight terrorists died in the operation, with the possibility remaining that others are still at liberty. The attack was coolly carried out, with reports coming from Bataclan that the terrorists had time to reload their weapons at least three times in the process of slaying their victims. French President Francois Hollande has immediately declared a state of emergency—the first in France as a whole since the troubled days of 1958—and imposed border controls.

The attack exposes all the present weak points of French society. A report issued by the French Senate in April of this year estimates that fully 1430 of 3000-plus European jihadists who had travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight for ISIS were French. Even more frighteningly, the French secret services believe that at least 200 French jihadis, who have spent time with ISIS, have since returned to the country. France’s inability to integrate its large Muslim population into the country’s mainstream—the Muslim minority makes up a full 7.5% of the population—makes it fertile terrorist ground for recruiting converts. Shockingly, it is estimated that a massive 70% of inmates in French prisons are Muslims, providing an incubator for radical jihadis from across the globe.

If France’s societal divisions make it vulnerable to both attacks and terrorist recruitment, its long-held, muscular leadership role in combating radicalism also makes it a likely target. Be the issue Mali, al-Qaeda in North Africa, or ISIS, France has forthrightly taken a leading military role. Only this past week, Paris sent its only aircraft carrier, the Charles De Gaulle, to the Gulf, where it is to help coordinate air strikes against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. Indeed, one of the terrorists reportedly shouted, ‘This is for Syria,’ as he went about his murderous business. If ISIS was either the instigator or inspiration for these attacks (and while I surely cannot prove it, my money would be on them) it amounts to a grim reminder that there will always be a price to be paid in standing up to terrorists.

The next step in analytical understanding is to look at who benefits in terms of domestic French and European politics from the outrages in Paris. The simple answer is that the xenophobic Front National of Marine Le Pen is the specific immediate beneficiary, with those calling for drastic curbs on refugees coming to Europe also winning out. The security fear has always been that in Europe’s chaotic, haphazard approach to the refugee crisis, radical Islamists will sneak through the open door, allowing them to perpetuate the sort of attack we have just witnessed.

Disastrous outcome

Putting the above analysis together allows us a pretty clear read on what the terrorists want: France to do less in fighting ISIS and jihadists throughout the world, the rise of xenophobic forces within France itself (which serve as an invaluable recruiting tool for jihadists), and the strengthening of nationalistic European forces desiring to keep Syrian refugees out of Europe. Such a disastrous outcome would only widen the already mammoth cleavages between the Middle East and Europe, and would certainly add to the power of radical jihadists, who would have been given a wonderfully compelling narrative of a weak France, but one that is increasingly xenophobic and unwelcoming to refugees. This would amount to nothing less than a geopolitical calamity of the first order.

Instead, France and the West must bravely (and indeed following such a horrendous attack it does require bravery to keep calm and carry on) deny the terrorists the political gains they so fervently desire. France must march shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the west in combating ISIS and al-Qaeda, while at the same time it must remain a generous country, both in terms of European refugee flows in general, and lessening divisions with its own restive Muslim minority in particular. A strong, generous France denies the terrorists the very thing they want. In honour the many victims, that is the outcome that Paris must arrive at.

In terrorizing, terrorists must now again not force the West into a series of cataclysmic mistakes. We Americans are with you, Paris; but you must do better than we did after 9/11, and deny the terrorists the sort of narrative that they want.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (, a successful global political risk consulting firm. An eminent foreign policy expert, John is the senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The author of all or part of 11 books, Hulsman has also given 1490 interviews, written over 410 articles, prepared over 1270 briefings, and delivered more than 460 speeches on foreign policy around the world.

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