On 17 November, French fighter jets conducted a fresh wave of airstrikes against ISIL targets in Syria in response to the terrorist attacks in Paris that left 129 people dead and over 300 injured.
Meanwhile, police have conducted over 100 raids on properties across France linked to Islamist extremists, including the 18 November operation in St-Denis targeting the suspected mastermind of the Paris attacks, Abdel-Hamid Abu Oud. Further arrests in Belgium have been made amid an international manhunt for another suspected terrorist on the run, Salah Abdeslam, Europe’s new ‘enemy number one’.
The horrific events that unfolded in Paris were shocking in their scale and brutality: seven co-ordinated terrorist attacks designed to cause maximum, indiscriminate damage. Whilst Paris was the target of ISIL’s attack, individuals from 19 countries fell victim to the terrorist atrocities. World leaders and populations across the globe have expressed solidarity with France as they come to terms with events and take steps to wage ‘war’ against ISIL at home and abroad.
Shocking, yes; but should the Paris attacks have surprised us? Probably not, given the state and trajectory of the terrorism threat picture over the past 12 months. The Charlie Hebdo attack in January was a sign of things to come. France and other countries opposed to ISIL’s campaign will continue to face high threat / high vulnerability terrorism risks, as hard-to-detect and expansive terrorist networks continue to build capability and sharpen their international focus.
The threat presented by ISIL benefits from a state-building enterprise in Iraq and Syria as well as an extensive international network of like-minded extremists operating in, or otherwise connected with, various regions of the world, from Africa and the Middle East to south-east Asia and beyond. Terrorism risks are emerging in countries like Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and other places with heavy tourist and business traveller footfalls. But Europe is a region that is also becoming increasingly exposed to growing terrorism threats, despite well-developed intelligence and security services.
According to French President Hollande, the Paris attacks amounted to an act of war and France’s response will be ‘merciless’. Kinetic activity targeting ISIL networks both upstream (overseas, including Syria) and downstream (within France) will be essential to mitigating the risks presented by ISIL and their affiliates to French national security.
However, Hollande’s aim to ‘eradicate’ ISIL will only be achieved if the drivers and enablers of ISIL-linked violence are addressed through a full-spectrum response, in which military action plays a pivotal but, ultimately, supporting role.
A merciless response: full-spectrum style
Some people have argued that there is a difference between a ‘counter-terrorism’ strategy and a ‘counter-terrorist’ strategy.
The former focuses on combatting an ‘ism’, and therefore involves countering extreme ideology and the factors that underpin political violence. The latter focuses on terrorists, and involves detecting and disrupting people that have the intent and capability to harm us.
I’ve heard outside experts and practitioners alike argue that ‘counter-terrorism’ is all about the long-term and should be ‘softer’ in its approach, whilst ‘counter-terrorist’ is about the short-term and involves ‘hard’ security measures.
This distinction, in my view, is wrong-headed. ‘Soft’ often translates to ‘unfocused’ in practice and, as such, people tend to rely on ‘hard’ responses to address problems that are far too big and complex.
Not only is that approach ineffective, it highlights the fundamental problem with how we tend to equate counter-terrorism strategy with threat-mitigation. In order to achieve strategic counter-terrorism effect – that is, a sustainable reduction in terrorism risks – then responses to terrorism must be merciless in their treatment of the factors that drive and enable violence as well as the people that plot, plan and prosecute attacks.
This full-spectrum approach is even more critical if, like Hollande, you seek to ‘eradicate’ a global jihadist movement like ISIL, whose members, affiliates and associates are connected through a huge variety of physical and virtual networks and motivated by an array of context-dependent push and pull factors in many parts of the world.
The challenge facing France, and other countries vulnerable to ISIL attacks, is four-fold:
- Eliminating threats, upstream and down-stream: Keeping citizens safe by identifying people who present threats and disrupting them, a challenge made more complicated by the international make-up and reach of terrorist cells and networks affiliated with ISIL, which necessitates action at home and overseas, in partnership with others;
- Eradicating enablers: Depriving terrorists of the territorial space, ideological basis, communication channels, and financial, military and human resources, that allow them to influence, recruit, train, plan and operate;
- Tackling drivers: Addressing the political, social and economic factors that help create the circumstances in which people become susceptible to extremist ideology and engage in violent behaviour;
- Strategic coherence: Ensuring, to a reasonable degree, that each pillar is mutually-supportive, so that any action to eliminate threats or eradicate enablers doesn’t create or exacerbate circumstances in which people are drawn or driven to violence, underscoring the importance of a political component to a solution to the Syria crisis and the ISIL threat.
The terrorism forecast in Europe for the next 6 to 12 months and beyond is bleak, and appropriate steps to assess and mitigate risks should be taken. However, increased international co-operation and a targeted full-spectrum response should build momentum against ISIL and, in time, their deadly campaign – as with all terrorist movements – will end.
By Dr. Chris Mackmurdo - Founder of Contest Global, a strategic Intelligence consultancy and HELP intelligence expert www.contestglobal.com