Apocalyptic terror visits Paris

It is a sign of the times, that a handful of determined terrorists can paralyze a major European capital

Hisham Melhem
Hisham Melhem
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The recent horrific terror bombings in Beirut and Paris are the latest reminders that the scourge of terrorism is not only as old as organized human society, but that it is more ubiquitous and more lethal in a globalized world. The streets of Paris have witnessed and experienced numerous acts of terror, from the ‘secular’ terror of the anarchists of the 19th century to the ‘sacred’ terror of al-Qaeda as recently as January with the Charlie Hebdo attacks. But if the Friday evening massacre which at this writing has claimed more than 200 lives is the work of the Islamic State ISIS, or al-Qaeda it will have the ugly distinction of being the worst apocalyptic terror that has visited a western city since the 9/11 attacks in the United States. There is no science of the future, but we can extrapolate from history’s facts and trends and project into the future, though not with absolute certainty, that as long as there men and women driven by irreconcilable impulses, whether cloaked in religious garb, historic or political grievances and willing to sacrifice their lives to win, terrorism - with its astonishing changing mutations- will remain with us as the integral dark side of civilization.

It is a sign of the times, that a handful of determined terrorists can paralyze a major European capital

Hisham Melhem

In a globalized world, no city is immune to ‘spectacular’ acts of terror. On 9/11 the United States had its first encounter with a strain of absolutist terror brought about by 19 young Islamists who were dispatched by al-Qaeda, a terrorist organization that was forged in the crucible of war in Afghanistan. That encounter changed America in radical ways that were unthinkable before that fateful September morning. Never had few individuals brutally disrupted the lives of so many, with so little cost, for such a long time. That was the fateful encounter between the apocalypse and Globalization. Before globalization, that strain of terrorism driven by religious fervor or nihilistic and absolutist impulses had a marked, but mostly limited impact on the afflicted societies. The damage was commensurate with the available tools of terror. The Assassins of medieval Persia and Syria unsheathed the dagger to dispatch their targets; the Anarchists of Europe (and America) pulled the trigger, or threw the bomb to destroy their targets. The 9/11 terrorists employed civilian airplanes as missiles and killed thousands within few hours, and the masked armies of ISIS employ the whole spectrum of the tools of killings; they brandish swords, and use tank columns to storm cities and dare the world to fight the End Time cataclysmic battle at Dabiq, Syria. What sets ISIS and al-Qaeda apart, is the environment in which they are operating. After all the damage that a dagger or even a gun could cause is minimal; but with ISIS and al-Qaeda we are talking about a new qualitative threat, because we have arrived at the intersection of terrorism and globalization, where the terrorists of ISIS in particular roam the virtual world, and use the digital revolution to hasten the coming of the apocalypse.

An ignominious day

The Paris attacks will become a milestone, or a day that shall live in infamy, where the French – and the Europeans- will mark their modern history as before or after that ignominious date, just as the Americans speak of 9/11. Life in France and the European Union will change, and not necessary for the better. Already French President Francois Hollande has declared a state of emergency and deployed the French military in Paris. There will be more security measures at the supposedly nominal borders of the Union, there will be more surveillance by the intelligence agencies that could negatively impact personal freedoms, there will be calls for retrenchment from the Middle East, and Muslim-European communities will likely feel more vulnarable and alienated with the inevitable rise in rightwing anti-Muslim sentiments and rhetoric. This was the shape of things to come in France before the Friday evening attacks. There were reports that in the hours following the bombings a number of Mosques were attacked in France. If the terrorists were Muslims born in France this will once again bring to the fore the distressing reality of a relatively large and young stratum within the Muslim community in France that is still living on the margin of society, resentful, alienated and susceptible to the preachers of the apocalypse; which explains why France has supplied ISIS with its fifth largest contingent of foreign Jihadists.

A failure of intelligence and imagination

It is a sign of the times, that a handful of determined terrorists can paralyze a major European capital. France, a nuclear power with a major economy, was still reeling from the damage caused by three men who wreaked havoc in Paris for three days last January. Modern democracies, by their political nature as open societies are vulnerable to terrorism. The Patriot Act adopted after 9/11 to guard against similar attacks caused considerable opposition and created sharp divisions in America, because it was seen as impinging on individual liberties. If the 9/11 attacks exposed the lack of imagination and the failure of Intelligence in the United States, the terror in Paris in which seven simultaneous attacks were mounted represents a colossal failure of Intelligence, and yes of imagination in a country that has considerable Intelligence capabilities and long experience in combatting terrorism. It is too early to speculate about how France will deal with this failure, but what is certain is that a thorough review of intelligence methods and means and assumptions will take place and the impact will be felt in the European Union as a whole.

A pitiless Force De Frappe

At the Bataclan Theater, where most victims fell, President Hollande vowed that France will take the fight to the terrorists, and the struggle ‘will be without pity’. For the French, the carnage in Paris is a game changer in the war with ISIS, if it turns out that the attacks were perpetrated by the militant group. In this case it is a safe assumption that France, in coordination with the United States and Iraq will intensify its military attacks against ISIS. France is probably the last European country that is still willing to deploy forces overseas in combat roles. In recent decades France intervened militarily in a number of conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, with mixed results. In recent years al-Qaeda inspired or directed terrorist attacks have paralyzed a number of European countries mainly Britain and Spain. The Madrid train bombings of 2004 succeeded in achieving its purported objective; the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq. France will exhibit no such inclination of retrenchment from the Middle East and it will be expected to use its vaunted Force De Frappe against the perpetrators of the Paris attacks.

Sword vs. ideas

The ‘war of ideas’ is an integral part of America’s war against ISIS. In fact many wars are wars of ideas and arms. Most of America’s wars, particularly in the 20th century were wars of ideas and arms, and ideas were effective and played a role in America’s epic struggles against Nazism, Fascism and Communism, particularly since these ideologies had some sympathizers in the U.S. But an apocalyptic, nihilistic group like ISIS cannot be defeated by the power of ideas a country like the United States or France can bring to bear. Values of freedom, democracy, and gender equality are alien and offensive to such atavistic warriors. Muslim history is replete with rebellious millenarian and apocalyptic movements lead by false Mahdis and fake Caliphs, which were defeated on the battlefields. Of course, there is a role for ideas in these types of struggles, but in the case of ISIS ideally the ultimate defeat of their nihilistic ‘ideas’ will be or should be at the hands of enlightened Muslims, but this fight should be secondary to the fight with the proverbial swords. The assumption that those who flee the ranks of ISIS seeking redemption, in conjunction with moderate Muslims and support from western democracies can staunch the appeal of ISIS to young and alienated Muslims is farfetched. The appeal of groups like ISIS will always be limited to a relatively small number of partisans. Such is the nature of the beast. Radical and revolutionary movements be they religious or secular are almost always small in numbers. In the immediate future swords and pitiless raw military power (Muslim and non-Muslim) is absolutely necessary to defeat a group such as ISIS.

The unprecedented carnage in Paris is almost the new normal in Syria and Iraq. Many Arabs and Westerners after years of bloodletting have become numbed by the ongoing tragedies in the region. One would only hope that the terror in France will be a catalyst for the U.S., the European Union and those Arabs willing to take on the peddlers of the apocalypse, and sectarianism whether Sunni or Shiite in Syrian and Iraq, to save both countries from what appears to be an accelerated descent into total disintegration.

Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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