13/11/15 is France’s 9/11.
Islamic State claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack in Paris as revenge for the French involvement in the wars against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. The events on Friday night, which caused the death of at least 130 people and wounded some 350, took France and the EU by surprise. No less surprising, however, is the fact that they are time and again surprised by the violent acts of Muslim radicals.
It seems that it was a serious intelligence fiasco which reminds one of the blindness that effected the US intelligence community in the months leading to 9/11/2001. It also reflects a political-cultural failure as well as a deep lack of awareness of the emerging new reality.
Surely Friday’s attack is the most lethal, comprehensive, well planned and executed and daring France has witnessed since at least the Second World War, which but it has to be viewed as yet one more event in a series.
The most serious previous terrorist attacks occurred in March 2012, when an Islamist in southwestern France killed three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school and three soldiers, and last January when al-Qaida-Yemen-affiliated terrorists murdered 17 people within three days in the Charlie Hebdo
magazine’s newsroom and the Hyper Casher supermarket in Paris. And there were more attacks of a lesser magnitude which either were carried out or thwarted. The writing was on the wall, or metaphorically speaking the warning signs were flashing from the Eiffel Tower with its magnificent glittering lights.
After each attack French and European leaders declared that they are determined to fight terrorism as did French Prime Minister Manuel Valls last January, to be echoed on Friday in the words of the President of the Republic François Hollande that this was “an act of war.” French declared a state of emergency – its fourth since the end of the Second World War – and three days of national mourning.
But words, tough as they may sound, and symbolic gestures are not enough.
Hollande: Paris attacks 'act of war', ISIS behind them
There is a need for new thinking, a new mindset to be joined by strong action.
According to the French president, eight terrorists participated in the attack who either committed suicide or were killed by security forces.
But it is more likely that more, many more terrorists – probably two dozen or so – were involved in the various stages of the operation from its planning to execution.
It was an attack which was carried out simultaneously in six venues. It shows careful planning which took a long time, and meticulous execution. There was a need for joint command, scouts to observe and select the targets, dispatchers, safe houses, drivers and helpers, weapons and ammunition and bombs, as well as people to prepare the explosive belts, documentation, couriers and communication system.
Regardless of whether they were organized in “sleeper cells,” with operatives who arrived from other countries (as it seems now) who were “woken” when the order was given, or with local terrorists; regardless of whether they communicated by messenger and did not use phones and computers to avoid leaving digital signatures, this large infrastructure should have been detected by the French intelligence and to a lesser degree by its allies – the US, the EU and even Israel – in the war against Muslim terrorism.
It can be assumed that now, after the initial shock and the resignation or reassignment of some intelligence and police officials, lessons will be drawn and structural changes and reforms put in place to improve intelligence collection and analysis.
But intelligence is not everything.
There is an urgent need to change the thinking. To achieve such a change France, and all parties in the West and the Arab world involved in the war on global terrorism, must understand that both Islamic State and al-Qaida have to be defeated.
Despite attempts by commentators to differentiate between Islamic State and al-Qaida, their ideological-religious rivalries should be viewed just as meaningless nuances. Unlike al-Qaida, Islamic State believes in its duty to establish its caliphate on every piece of land captured and controlled.
Both groups believe in terrorism and cruel violence as a method to impose their will on people. The Paris attack carried all the hallmarks of the well planned, simultaneous operations of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida in the US, Indonesia, Turkey, Madrid and London in the last decade.
Recently Islamic State suffered a few blows on the battlefield.
In northern Iraq, Kurdish forces with a US air umbrella expelled Islamic State fighters from Sinjar and lifted the siege from the Yazidi community. Kurdish forces in eastern-northern parts of Syria are conquering territory.
The Syrian army, albeit very slowly, has made inroads under the Russia aerial cover.
“Jihadi John,” the Kuwaiti Briton with the heavy London accent who has become the brutal, hooded face of the group, after decapitating Western hostages, was killed by a US drone attack a few days ago.
Maybe because of its recent defeats, Islamic State needed the Paris attack to show that it is still a strong and lethal force.
ISIS calls on Muslims to carry out attacks in France
Yet, to inflict serious damage on the vicious forces of jihad, not to mention defeat them, air strikes, even if they are significantly enhanced, are not enough. There is a need for “boots on the ground.” But sending in EU and US troops – especially in a US election year – would be highly unpopular and thus would require strong political commitment and real leadership.
Furthermore, such a decision would require public support and awareness that in order to achieve peace and security, a certain price – soldiers returning home in body bags – will have to be paid.
On top of that, even if the West does send troops to Syria, very little will be achieved without an international consensus about the aims of the military effort.
At the moment every party involved has its own agenda, and adding them up shows a fundamental contradiction. Russia and Iran fight in Syria to keep Assad in power. Turkey wants him to be toppled.
The US and EU hesitate while Saudi Arabia and the UAE support al-Qaida. This is a Tower of Babel of contrasting goals and wishes, which seem impossible to reconcile.
Israeli pundits and experts rush to conclude that the world should understand that we are already in the midst of the Third World War. Such a conclusion derives from the Israeli trait of “We know better,” the desire to feel that “We are not alone” in our problems with violence and terrorism, and maybe from the wish to avoid the need for a diplomatic solution with the Palestinians.
However, such an approach shows a lack of understanding of European culture and history. Unlike many in Israel, most European leaders and their public do not equate Islam with terrorism.
Yes, there is a strong will to fight Muslim terrorists and to be ready to pay the price for it, but this can be done without sacrificing the universal values of liberté, égalité and fraternité, the motto of the French Revolution.