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From 9/11 to 9/11

The devastating terrorist attacks in Paris which killed 129 people and injured over 300, and the subsequent response it prompted from the West, can have far-reaching geopolitical implications in Europe, Middle East and beyond.

The Paris attacks came on the heels of a string of high-profile attacks; from a suicide attack in the Turkish capital Ankara to the bombing of a Hezbollah stronghold in the Lebanon and the downing of a Russian plane in Sinai desert in Egypt by the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (Isis). These attacks marked a qualitative improvement in Isis’ military capabilities and expanded outreach. They also signified a shift in Isis strategy from consolidating its positions in Syria and Iraq to hit targets outside the Middle East in Europe and other parts of the world.

Certainly, Isis’ well-planned and well-executed attacks in Paris caught the French authorities flat-footed, who were in the middle of a restructuring process post the Charlie Hebdo attack earlier this year. The Paris attacks, which have been termed ‘Europe’s 9/11’, have brought the terrorist threat back to centre-stage on the international political agenda. Up to the Paris attacks, the West considered terrorism as a real but containable problem. However, these attacks have changed that perception.

French President François Hollande called the Paris attacks “an act of war” carried out by a “terrorist army against France”. Following these attacks, France intensified its airstrikes against Isis strongholds in Raqqa, Syria. On November 5, French authorities also dispatched aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle from the Toulon naval base to support anti-Isis operations in Syria and Iraq.

After the Paris attacks, the way the West is debating, framing and responding to the issue will exacerbate the problem further rather than solving it. Using jargon like ‘act of war by a terrorist army’ is inherently dangerous and problematic. Despite its territorial gains in Syria and Iraq and possession of conventional military capability, it is difficult to define Isis as an enemy in the form of an army.

This kind of framing inadvertently grants Isis de-facto recognition of a state rather than delegitimising it. What further complicates this is the fact that all the attackers were French citizens. So this kind of framing hardly helps tackle a threat that was home-grown and internally-oriented but externally-planned and directed. Simply put, Isis externally exploited grievances that have roots in France not in Syria. The current polarised debates in the West will further obfuscate this reality rather than bringing any clarity.

Another question that merits attention is: were the Paris attacks an ‘act of war’? And is a new war effort needed through a multi-nation coalition to defeat Isis? What would then become of the US-led ‘war on terror? If one of the declared objectives of the WOT was to avert another 9/11 like attack on the US and the West – and if the Paris attacks were Europe’s 9/11 – then perhaps the West has lost the WOT. It is instructive then to reconsider the mistakes made during the WOT and adopt a more holistic approach in this new war effort.

Unfortunately, instead of adopting a nuanced approach, the West is once again taking an over-simplistic view of a complicated reality: enough has not been done to destroy Isis in Iraq and Syria. Such reductionist visualisation ignores the elephant in the room – flawed western foreign policies in Middle East that fuel violent extremism, domestic social policies which fail to integrate migrant communities and the Islamophobic attitudes of the far-right that discriminate against Muslims and marginalise them. By stepping up airstrikes against Isis in Syria, the West is externalising a complicated problem whose roots are internal. Once again symptoms are being treated, not the causes.

It is quite evident that the heavily securitised western response to the Paris attacks has already polarised the debate. It has created new divisions which actually strengthen Isis rather than weakening it. Such response will win Isis more recruits, which is a recipe for even more radicalism and extremism. So far, Isis seems successful in its strategy of terrorising communities, getting publicity and further polarising the Muslim and non-Muslim divide on which it thrives.

Isis is a unique phenomenon in three respects; it is a terrorist organisation, a semi-conventional guerrilla outfit as well as a conventional quasi-military organisation simultaneously. It is engaged in hybrid warfare with multiple adversaries. It changes its approach and tactics from terrorism to guerrilla warfare and to conventional military tactics as and when required. It hits Europe and other adversaries outside Iraq and Syria through terrorism. It shifts to guerrilla tactics in areas where it is faced with a superior conventional enemy. And it fights like a proper army when it occupies areas like Mosul (Iraq) and Palmyra (Syria) etc. So increasing air-strikes or boots on the ground alone will not weaken Isis because it will change its fighting tactics as per the circumstances.

From the geopolitical perspective, as long as the regional and global powers in Middle East do not stop using Isis as a scapegoat to protect and advance their narrow regional interests, the threat of terrorism will only increase.

Take Turkey for example. Turkey joined the anti-Isis coalition, but instead of fighting Isis it bombed the PKK. The Syrian regime was at the verge of collapse in 2014 until Isis entered the fray and everything happening in Syria became terrorism allowing Russia to enter on the side of Assad. In the name of fighting terror, they bombed the rebel groups and populations opposed to Assad regime. The US paid lip service to fighting Isis and only helped its handpicked regime in Iraq to stay in power in Baghdad. The Saudis, Qataris and others did not touch Isis as long as it killed Shias.

It is quite evident that geopolitics dictates counterterrorism policies and not the other way round. Hitherto, terrorism has been used by different powers as a tool to play geopolitics but now this kind of global politicking comes with a costly price tag – bombs in Europe and attacks in countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait etc.

The writer is an associate research fellow at the International Centre for Political

Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.

Email: isabasit@ntu.edu.sg

Abdul Basit, "From 9/11 to 9/11," The News. 2015-12-01.
Keywords: Social sciences , Geopolitical implications , Paris attacks , Hebdo attack , International political agenda , Isis operations , Syria , Middle East , Paris , Iraq , Egypt , Turkey , Terrorists , Hezbollah , US , WOT , 9/11