[Prefatory Note: the post below is based on an opinion piece published by Middle East Eye on December 1, 2015 under the title “A Different Response to ISIS after Paris.” My modified text places its focus on the originality of megaterrorism and its distinctive challenges, suggesting that the choice of response needs to be extended beyond the iron cage of militarism and vengeance. Also, it is essential for analysts and leaders to envision the response to the response as well as being preoccupied with how best to hit back. Increasingly, American politicians treat the challenge as if playing poker whereas the realities of the situation call for a chess players’ natural disposition to think ahead as many moves as possible. Finally, given the religious and civilizational dimensions of current versions of megaterrorism, it is vital to guard against various manifestations of Islamophobia.]
What separates megaterrorism from other more customary forms of terrorism is the theme of this post. It is not possible to give a precise definition of megaterrorism by pointing to a threshold of casualties or the magnitude of response. Each megaterrorist event is decisively shaped by its distinctive sociopolitical and psychological context. The focus here is take account of this radical new category of threat posed in a variety of settings, critique the ‘war’ reflex and the war/crime binary, briefly consider alternate paths of response, and recommend risk and cost assessments that take into account adversary responses to the prescribed response. The 21st century experience with responding to megaterrorist events does not create confidence in either most conceptualizations of the challenges being posed or the responsive strategies chosen to be implemented.
The horrific Paris attacks of November 13th challenge the West more deeply in some ways than did the 9/11 attacks 14 years ago. The attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center mounted by al-Qaeda were directed at the twin centers of American power: global military dominance, and were in reaction to especially large-scale deployments of American armed forces near the holiest of Islamic religious sites in Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s. There was a terrorist logic associated with striking such symbolic blows, although it aroused an American led unified Western response that was relied upon as a mandate for intervention in Afghanistan and then started to fracture when extended to Iraq after failing to win approval from the UN Security Council. These wars have had the major ‘blowback’ effect contributing to the origins and emergence of the current primary menace of ISIS, above all by its willingness to send suicide bombers to attack ‘soft targets’ of ordinary people that included in Paris a sports arena, a music hall, and several neighborhood restaurants in the city center. In other words, to a greater extent than even was the case with Osama Bin Laden’s manifestos, ISIS has initiated a merciless totalizing campaign against the West, soliciting followers and recruits from around the world, and appears to have the will and capability to continue the effort for the foreseeable future no matter what retaliatory blows it receives as a result of intensified Western military efforts.
Such a grave crisis is deepened, rather than mitigated, by the bellicose stupidity of François Hollande who immediately after the event declared ‘war’ on ISIS, promising to be unremittingly merciless in response. Hollande’s words to the French Parliament: “The acts committed on Friday night in Paris and at the Stade are acts of war. This constitutes an attack against our country, against its values, against its youth, against its way of life.” In so framing the French response Hollande repeats the muscular mistakes of George W. Bush. It should be clear by now that ‘war’ with the West is not only what these movements claim and seek, but its nature is such that the capabilities at the disposal of the West, magnify rather than reduce or eliminate the threats posed. Or as maybe more precise, seemingly at first effectively reduce the threat, but later on find that the original threat has somewhat changed and been displaced, and is emergent anew in a somewhat altered, yet even more extreme form. In this regard, there was the belief that when Osama Bin Laden was found and executed, al-Qaeda had been most destroyed and substantially contained, Yet it did not take long that the earlier megaterrorist threat had shifted its locus to ISIS and its various ‘cosmic warriors’ (Mark Juergensmeyer) spread around the world who make it their mission to resort to mass indiscriminate violence against purely civilian targets as a matter of religious devotion.
One alternative response available to Hollande was to denounce the acts of 11/13 as a monstrous ‘crime’ that called for an unprecedented national and international law enforcement effort. This is the manner in which such non-state violence of political extremists has been addressed before 9/11 and should at least be considered in response to a metaterrorist event before leaping into the fires of war. It remains instructive to examine the Spanish response to the March 11, 2004 Madrid train bombings, a megaterrorist event as measured by the scale of the casualties and the fear generated. The political leader in Spain at the time, José Maria Asner, a junior coalition partner of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq defying Spanish public opinion that opposed such involvement. After the Madrid bombing Asner immediately pointed an accusatory finger at the Basque Separatist movement, ETA, which turned out to be wrong, and his fear-mongering was evidently resented by many Spaniards. The real culprits turned out to be Moroccan Muslim extremists. It happened that there was a national election in Spain a few days after the bombing, Asner was defeated, and the Spanish Socialist Workers Party prevailed, resulting in José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero becoming the new head of state. As the new leadership promised in its electoral campaign, the Spanish government quickly announced the removal of its troops from Iraq and simultaneously embarked on an all out hunt for the criminals. In effect, by removing Spanish troops, the Spanish government was not only respecting the public will of its citizens but also indirectly acknowledging the legitimate grievances associated with the unlawful regime-changing attack and occupation of Iraq. This response to the megaterrorist challenge in Spain could not, of course, remove the deep and tragic personal losses resulting from the attacks, but Spanish society was allowed to move away from shadows of fear, and has not experienced subsequent major terrorist events.
This conjunction of circumstances in Spain will not always be present, and the originality of the megaterrorist challenge, neither can often not be met by the mechanical application of either paradigms of war or crime as traditionally understood. We lack the language or the public awareness needed to capture the dark originality of megaterrorism, and hence often seem to be acting ineffectively or even in a manner that increases the threats of recurrence. At times, the gravity of the event is so great that an aroused and frightened citizenry demands and expects an immediate and proportionate response that usually cannot be generated by acting within the crime paradigm, and yet the war paradigm while responding to public outrage tends to produce policies that spread havoc, expand the zone of strife and devastation, and in the name of security encroach excessively on domestic freedoms at home. This combination of action and reaction is descriptive of the American experience post-9/11. This American case was further complicated by the fact that neoconservative political leadership controlled the U.S. Government response, and as a result the counter-terrorist response became intertwined with quite distinct and controversial grand strategy goals in the Middle East that largely account for the American led decision to attack and then occupy Iraq in 2003.
The American Vice President, Joe Biden, seemed recently to retreat from ‘the war on terror’ discourse, but only slightly. Biden argued not for war, but unconvincingly urged raising the level of interventionary violence higher against ISIS as the right course of action after Paris, above all, to demonstrate an enhanced commitment to the defeat of ISIS. Biden believes “everyone knows what needs to be done and there’s no doubt we’ll prevail, but we need to do a hell of a lot more. We all have to step up our level of engagement: more troops, more planes, more money. This thing will go on for years unless we do.” Depressingly, the Democratic presidential hopeful, Hilary Clinton, told the Council of Foreign Relations more or less the same thing a few weeks ago, just prior to the Paris attacks. Obama as is his way, seemed to recognize the undesirability of an open ended or permanent war posture without altering the analysis and essential response of his neocon predecessor in the White House. [See speech defending drone warfare at the National Defense University, May 23, 2013] After Paris, and in response to the shooting in San Bernadino, California there is a renewed insistence by the Republican opposition that America is ‘at war’ whether its elected leader acknowledges it or not.
All of these views, despite covering a range of tactical positions, hold in common a shared militarist definition of the proper response to the ISIS threat. Further the response is exclusively focused on offensive tactics and weaponry that are intended to destroy this elusive enemy, but without much prospect of doing so. There is no commitment discussed or made to defending those minorities that are threatened with ‘boots on the ground’ or exploring what kind of political options might make sense. It should not be forgotten that the core capabilities of ISIS arose in response to the anti-Sunni and oppressive tenor of the American led regime-destroying occupation of Iraq that lasted for more than a decade and had been preceded by a devastating UN authorized air war in 1991 that was followed by a punitive peace, featuring a sanctions regime imposed for over ten years that is believed responsible for several hundred thousand Iraqi civilian deaths.
The fact that some of the elements of this enormous crime committed in Paris were transnational is not decisive in altering its character. By elevating the status of ISIS to that of a belligerent against whom it is necessary to mobilize the society that was targeted perversely adds to the gains of the attacker, and creates incentives for it to do more of the same. If handled as a version of the most dangerous type of crime that deeply threatens human and state security, the society would still be fully mobilized to protect itself as fully as practicable, and other governments would become more inclined to do whatever they can by way of cooperative criminal law enforcement. The magnitude of the crime could be further recognized by prosecuting the Paris attacks as an international crime against humanity as well as the most serious of violations of French criminal law. This was the approach taken centuries earlier by many governments to international piracy. The entire world was presumed to have a shared interest in suppressing piracy, and many governments cooperated to prevent and punish, and continue to do so in response to modern piracy. The realization that the criminals engaged in the Paris attacks had grown up in the heart of Europe further compounds the mistake of externalizing the evil, situating the threat in the Arab World, antagonizing even more the people suffering in that already inflamed region, and in the process inflating the stature of the criminals as combatants in a war.
The Bush/Hollande way of reacting also is harmful in two other fundamental respects: it precludes attention being given to root causes and steadfastly refuses self-scrutiny that might lead to some acknowledgement that extremist motivations of the criminal perpetrators might have taken shape in reaction wholly or partly to legitimate grievances. The best sustainable remedy for terrorist violence, whether large or small, is to address its root causes and legitimate grievances. Otherwise, as even some conservative and militarist political figures have admitted (including Rumsfeld, Mubarak), recourse to warfare, whether by war through a concerted campaign (e.g. Iraq) or by a program of targeted assassinations (e.g. drones) quite possibly generates many more militants than it eliminates, and certainly spreads the zone of violence and devastation more widely causing massive displacements of people, generating refugee flows that give rise to the sort of deep alienation and anger that creates a new pool of recruits that can be attracted to extremist causes, as well as encourages a reactionary backlash in whatever countries are chosen as sanctuaries.
To consider the Paris attacks by a reductio of good versus evil has the further consequence of excluding diplomacy and political accommodation as instruments useful in restoring stability and human security. How many of the supposedly intractable conflicts of the past, including the conflict with Britain that occasioned the American Revolution, were resolved by bringing the terrorists in from the cold? I would not suggest that this is currently a plausible option with ISIS, but keeping open this possibility, however remote and distasteful it now seems, is to be sensitive to the ‘lessons of history.’
More significantly, to avoid self-scrutiny by opting for unconditional war is to miss the best opportunity to undercut in the long-term the extremist rationale for attacking the West. It needs to be better appreciated that extremism does not flourish in a political and moral vacuum. It is probably the case that ISIS cannot be fully explained as a reaction to regional sectarianism, the Palestinian ordeal, and the mayhem brought to the people of Iraq, but absent the widespread sense of injustice associated with Israel’s regional role and millions resultant deaths and displacements, which partly embody the outcomes of the U.S. geopolitical agenda, the emergence of al-Qaeda, al-Nusra, and ISIS might never have happened, at least in their present form. Such a conclusion is reinforced when it is appreciated that the Arab governments, dependent on American protection, proved incapable, and in the end unwilling, to secure even the most minimal post-colonial interests and honor the values of Islamic and Arab peoples, including the provision of jobs and the elimination of extreme poverty. Arguably, given the Sykes-Picot legacies, including the artificial state formations of a century ago, the region has never yet managed to cast off the colonial mantle.
In conclusion, when dealing with the traumas and threats posed by megaterrorist movements it seems appropriate to acknowledge that neither the war nor the crime template as conventionally understood is capable of providing satisfactory answers. The context must be considered, and like skillful chess players a response should not be undertaken without evaluating the likely range of responses of ISIS and others to a range of possible Western responses. It is easy long after the fact to critique what the Bush presidency started to do on 9/12, but doing this in retrospect overlooks the actuality and intensity of the 9/11 challenge. Of course, when the Iraq War was folded into the counter-terrorist rationale that was initially internationally accepted with respect to launching an attack on al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, it became obvious that other controversial American strategic goals were being pursued, and that the likely result would be a major foreign policy failure as well as an aggravation of the megaterrorist challenge. Beyond this, an unlawful invasion of a sovereign state by the leading member of the UN strikes a severe blow at the authority of UN Charter and the core norms of international law limiting force to situations of self-defense absent Security Council authorization.
As the French response to 11/13 confirms, nothing much has been learned about how to address the distinctive challenges of mega-terrorism. To encourage such learning four preliminary policy prescriptions can be endorsed: (1) the importance of restoring respect for UN authority and international law in the shaping of responses to megaterrorist challenges, including some further development of international law; (2) the need to develop a template for addressing megaterrorism that is more sophisticated than mechanically than opting for either/or logic of war or crime; (3) the revision of tactical and strategic thinking to include a process of looking ahead beyond the response to a megaterrorist event to envision as well as possible the chain of responses and counter-responses likely to ensue; (4) the practical desirability of making and taking account of assessments of root causes and legitimate grievances in clarifying the interpretation of the motivation of those who support, plan, and enact megaterrorism and with an emphasis on the reduction and eventual elimination of such threats to societal wellbeing.
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