The Paris Attacks and the New Paradigm of Terrorism

Saad Omar Khan

No matter what cause one defends, it will suffer permanent disgrace if one resorts to blind attacks on crowds of innocent people.

-Albert Camus

The evening of November 13, 2015 was the bloodiest single night of terror Europe has faced in years, with a reported body count of 129 deaths as of writing likely to rise after accounting for the many victims still critically injured. Soon after the attacks ended, the social media accounts of the Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility, adding that France would remain on the organization’s “list of targets.” IS, which, so far, has spent most of its efforts expanding its existing territory in Syria and Iraq, seems to have also shifted its goals and tactics. Previous attacks associated with the group have been theorized to be acts by “lone-wolf” IS sympathizers. But last week’s events were unique, with many specialists concluding that the level of coordination involved indicated a high-degree of planning by IS’s command structure. The sheer brazenness and bloodthirstiness of the attacks—similar in style to those in Mumbai in 2008 and Peshawar in 2014—also indicate a move towards pursuing “soft civilian targets” outside of IS’s Syrian-Iraqi centre as a display of force and defiance against members of the global anti-IS coalition.

The hunt for the perpetrators is still ongoing. Several suspects have been identified as French nationals, a fact that has raised ongoing questions over how IS has been able to lure approximately 1,500 of France’s Muslim citizens to fight for the State and flee to its Syrian-Iraqi “caliphate.” Beyond French citizens, IS has drawn thousands of foreign fighters to its ranks. Experts have suggested part of IS’s lure seems to be a mixture of its prestige (none the least brought about due to its remarkable success in acquiring territory) and the way the organization seems to empower individuals who feel trapped and imprisoned in their societies of origin. This attraction makes countering IS’s narrative particularly challenging for Western policymakers. Appeals to the inauthenticity of IS’s religious credentials have proved futile, and the explicitness with which Islamic religious scholars across the world have denounced IS have done little to stem the tide of European Muslims pledging allegiance to the Islamic State.

Pundits and journalists have focused on the lack of integration of France’s Muslims as a causal factor for IS’s appeal. Many French Muslims live on the margins of a secular political culture that emphasises a uniform national sense of belonging over “communautarisme” and minority cultural identity. Poverty and low social outcomes have plagued working class Muslims living in France’s suburbs. This marginalization has compounded widespread discrimination (often seen under the guise of France’s secular tradition) and a perception that France has largely ignored the lives and values of its Muslims citizens. A lack of integration into French society alone is a problematic indicator for joining IS or other extremist organizations, especially considering the diversity of backgrounds from which Europe’s jihadist volunteers have come from.

The attacks have also highlighted the role Syrian migrants may have played in the killings. The presence of a Syrian passport—now thought to be a forgery—at the site of one the night’s suicide bombings may push the Syrian refugee crisis into a new and considerably less hospitable direction by intertwining the parallel issues of Europe’s migration policy and its anti-terrorism policy. A migrant camp in Calais was set on fire hours after the attacks. Poland has pushed back against its commitment to accept refugees within its borders as a security precaution. Politicians in the Czech Republic have even suggested closing the borders of Europe’s Schengen Area. Refugee policy is even dominating the American election campaign, with many candidates suggesting a halt to further refugee intake or restricting acceptance to only Syrian Christians, despite statistical evidence that directly counters the argument that refugee acceptance predicts terrorist activity. A preference for greater security over humanitarianism may shape the West’s tenor on the refugee situation in the future, an undoubtedly troubling direction for policymakers tasked with handling one of the worst humanitarian crises in decades.

Increasing security measures to prevent a repeat of the November 13 attacks may be all the options that France and other nations fighting against IS are left with. Given the fury generated by the attacks, and with French President François Hollande pledging a “ruthless” response against IS, citizens of liberal democracies must be wary. Europe in particular must stem the possibility of further rejection of its traditional spirit of openness. Suggestions that “introducing Israeli-style security screening and checks across Europe’s cities” as a series of preventative measures against similar “Mumbai-style” attacks have been made. The political gain won by xenophobic politicians exploiting the situation may be inevitable, as is the possibility that Europe’s relative ease in mobility across its borders may be curtailed. It would be a clichéd statement to say terrorism will win should Europe shut itself down and abandon the freedoms and the principles of openness with which it has based itself on in favour of public safety. Sadly, it may be the case that we must confront this cliché as a prescient warning in a time of great global distress.

This is, unfortunately, an international issue as much as a French and European concern. Canada has had to grapple with similar dilemmas after the 2014 terror attacks in Ottawa and Quebec. Hate crimes against the Canadian Muslim community have already occurred. Those of us outside of France who admire the country’s adherence to liberté must also value its fraternité. We must be vigilant against civil liberties being dismantled in the name of security as much as we must eschew the spirit of suspicion, disunity, and outright bigotry that will inevitably follow in the wake of the slaughter. A balance between the necessary pursuit of justice and safety and the preservation of solidarity and democratic values must be maintained. As Camus writes:

Absolute freedom mocks at justice. Absolute justice denies freedom. To be fruitful, the two ideas must find their limits in each other.


Saad Omar Khan is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. He holds a Bachelor degree in Peace and Conflict Studies and Psychology from the University of Toronto, and a Master degree in the History of International Relations from the London School of Economics. Saad has worked in the non-profit, financial, and academic sectors. His policy interests include international relations, human rights, immigration, and cultural policy.

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