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Paris, a sign of things to come and an alternative rhetoric

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Written by: Justin Sibley   Published: 18 November 2015

[dropcap color=”” boxed=”yes” boxed_radius=”0px” class=”” id=””]T[/dropcap]he coordinated attacks on the weekend in Paris were markedly similar to the ‘suicide shooter’ attacks that took place in Mumbai in 2008, where coordinated shooters and bombers attacked hotels, cafes, and public transport. Following that incident, security and intelligence professionals feared more incidents of this style to follow.

But the reported incidents were surprisingly low, especially given how inexpensive and easily planned these attacks are – and given the attraction a suicide shooter attack would hold to a would be extremist that may not quite be prepared to detonate a suicide vest, but might be persuaded to participate in an attack where the chances of escaping are higher. Creating suicide explosives is more difficult, whereas long and short arms such as assault rifles and pistols are readily available on black markets. The markers have certainly been there in more recent times: such as the killing of Lee Rigby in a brutal public display in London, and the attacks in the USA, such as in Texas on a Prophet Mohammed cartoon competition by two gunmen. Rigby’s killing reinforces that you don’t even need shooting weapons to cause fear. In Sydney, the Martin Place siege and the Parramatta shooting of a civilian police member should act as worrying indicators.

But, we should not forget that terrorism is a conspiracy to commit murder. Islamic motivations are just a contemporaneous driver to satisfy human need to for violence. Other non-Muslim religious extremists conduct attacks in the USA and in Israel for example, without anywhere near the same international condemnation. Our politicians and media benefit from fear, and that fear in turn exacerbates the problem. But few would have thought following 9/11 that we would be facing the spread of violence that we are now. 

Unfortunately the coalition’s response to 9/11 and the somewhat simplistic and aggressive campaign that followed has succeeded in creating the ‘War on Terror’. This will not end quickly. More and more individuals with fear and hatred grow up in places like Miran Shah and Wana faster than American and other partner intelligence agencies can identify them, and the drones can kill them, and it seems all too easy for individuals in Western countries to be motivated to commit terrorism. The actions of nations in the face of what was thought to be a justifiable threat, through examples such as Guantanamo Bay, and the assassination of Bin Laden, has only served to send the wrong message and create more and more anger. More recently France appears to be experiencing a disproportionate response to its firm protection of freedom of speech. But recalling the history of France’s former ‘colonial’ control of certain Muslim lands, and understanding the makeup of France’s Muslim population as a result, can provide some relevant context. 

It was perhaps hard to predict that a simplistic approach to regime change in Iraq would lead to the displacement and marginalization of the majority of Sunnis previously aligned (often through necessity) to the Baathist regime. Imprisoned or discarded, unemployed without pensions, it was only a matter of time before a new sectarian divide sending ripples across the Muslim world would lead some individuals to join a militant response. ISIL is arguably a foreseeable bi-product of a simplistic Western intervention in Iraq spurred on by a failure to act in Syria to curb a humanitarian disaster.

Further, our fear of Muslims has increased marginalisation and with it the potential that individuals would identify with these events and eventually turn against other relatively free societies in which they live, and may even have been born. Security intelligence organisations may have aided the sense of marginalisation. Which came first, the threat or the paranoia? We do need intelligence agencies to protect us, but we should also learn some lessons from the ‘reds under the beds’ paranoia of the Communism days. Not every Muslim is a would be terrorist to be scrutinized and investigated.

This is not to say that some of the individuals profiled and investigated haven’t been involved in terrorism. In some cases the plots were missed, but the individuals had come to attention in the past and been discounted- such as Man Monis in Sydney. We cannot follow everyone, nor predict every threat. At the same time, our suspicion, and at times overt interference, can play a role. Increasingly we are seeing youths, who perhaps in a previous generation would have been engaged in truancy or graffiti, attracted and manipulated to this violence.

The problem exists now, whether we have responded in the best way possible or not. So what do we do? In my opinion, we need to understand the complexities of the conflicts and avoid gross simplifications, such as branding all ‘foreign fighters’ as enemies. This simply doesn’t help and only works to win votes and feed popular fear. We should look into and have a deeper understanding at a political level of the regions we are attempting to comment on and or interfere in, or we should avoid getting involved altogether. That option may sadly have passed. We should now carefully consider our response to things like the Paris attacks. In France’s case, was shutting the borders and declaring a state of emergency the right response, or does that assist in vilifying Muslim communities, in turn creating new willing recruits? There is a threat, but we can respond in a more careful and subtle way that does not fuel fear and help to marginalise. 

The key is to get back to the basic point that terrorism is a conspiracy to commit murder, albeit mass murder. You either have a conspiracy or you don’t. It is easy to brand a particular religion as the threat, when in fact the offenders fall clearly within recognizable criteria which can be detected and prevented using traditional intelligence and law enforcement tools. We need to remain vigilant and report all suspicious activity, but not act on paranoia and flawed logic, and inadvertently feed into the plans of groups such as ISIL, by helping to push innocent people to become criminals.