The Syrian Blowback

Rohan Gunaratna

151116-SA-SEA-Paris-1000 People gather at a makeshift memorial near the Bataclan concert hall in Paris, two days after terrorists shot dead 89 people there, Nov.15, 2015.

Afghan veterans shaped the global terrorism landscape during the last three decades. Today, blowback from the conflict in Syria is driving the global terrorist threat.

Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris have immediate and long-term implications worldwide. As soft targets are too numerous to protect, Paris-style attacks are likely to become a future template for the networks of the Islamic State (IS), its competitor al-Qaeda, and other groups.

Paris is most likely the beginning of the Syrian blowback. With threat groups and personalities from Asia, the Middle East and Africa traveling to Syria to fight, upon their return, the countries in the global south will remain most vulnerable.

Their capacities to monitor the movement of returnees and to track their online influence are limited compared with their European and North American counterparts. With the rise of Asia, and four dozen groups pledging allegiance to IS leadership, it is inevitable that the threat will affect the Asia-Pacific region too.

‘A warning to those who wish to learn’

The Nov. 13 attacks in Paris killed 129 and injured 352 (99 critically) at cafes, a stadium and a concert hall. They were a copycat of the Mumbai attacks (November 26-29, 2008) where 10 suicide attackers killed 166 and injured hundreds in a cafe, train station, hospital and two hotels.

In both cities, suicide attackers carried automatic weapons and held hostages before killing them in cold blood. The attack planning was in the immediate neighborhood of the target countries – Belgium in the case of France, and Pakistan, in the case of India – making it difficult to detect.

IS claimed the Paris attack, describing the terrorists as a "faithful group of the soldiers of the Caliphate" and "targeting the capital of prostitution and obscenity."

According to SITE Intelligence Group, IS added, "eight brothers wrapped in explosive belts and armed with machine rifles, targeted sites that were accurately chosen in the heart of the capital of France, including the Stade de France during the match between the Crusader German and French teams, where the fool of France, Francois Hollande, was present."

IS sought to justify the attack against "the Bataclan Conference Center" by stating that "hundreds of apostates had gathered in a profligate prostitution party, and other areas in the 10th and 11th and 18th [arrondissements]..."

It concluded by saying, "Let France and those who walk in its path know that they will remain on the top of the list of targets of the Islamic State... This attack is the first of the storm and a warning to those who wish to learn.”

The IS European network hit France as it started to step up its surveillance and operational flights over IS-controlled territory.

A turning point

The attacks demonstrated the capacity of IS to strike far from its core area of Iraq and Syria. Their brutality reflects the diffusion of the IS mindset and methodology; their scale points to the continuing threat stemming from radicalized and militarized segments of the French diaspora and migrant communities, driven by the developments in North Africa and the Middle East.

Unlike in the U.S., the Muslim diaspora and migrants in Europe lived in enclaves. A tiny segment of the diaspora has been deeply influenced by the ideologies of al-Qaeda and IS.

Europe has always given a higher priority to human rights over security, but the Paris attacks will likely be a turning point in Europe's fight against terrorism. The attacks are likely to reinforce calls for robust laws for preventive detention, decryption keys and curbing migration. Until the attacks, the migrations from Syria and Iraq received a mixed response in Europe. Now, Germany may be pressured to join the rest of Europe and identify with the Fortress Europe concept.

Like Mumbai, Paris was a hybrid attack where terrorists combined two sets of skills - armed assault and suicide. When terrorists stage armed assault with weaponry combined with a suicide capability, ordinary police units are not ready to intervene. They are not trained to confront highly motivated terrorists armed with automatic weapons wearing suicide vests or belts and holding hostages. To fight terrorists willing to kill and die, highly trained, specially equipped government forces are required. Governments worldwide will need to raise and expand specialist response teams to fight this wave of terrorism.

Soft targets

The terrorist attacks identified loopholes in security measures that the French developed after the Charlie Hebdo shooting in January 2015. While the French focused on protecting diplomatic and government targets, the Islamic State attacked community and entertainment targets.

The attacks demonstrate the challenge of protecting community targets. The strategy should be for governments to develop robust community engagement programs to reach out to citizens, residents and visitors to report on suspicious activity.

Every terrorist attack entails a cycle of activity that precedes the attack: propaganda, recruitment, fundraising, procurement, transportation, safe houses, training, communication, travel, multiple identities, observing the targets, and rehearsal. By raising public vigilance and maintaining alertness, extremist and terrorist support and operational activity can be detected in the pre-attack phases.

No terrorist attack will be successful unless the community allows it. The terrorists indoctrinate and recruit from the community. The community is the resource base of the terrorists. Both the terrorists and governments are competing to influence the human terrain. If terrorist and extremist ideology spreads in a community, they will sympathize, advocate, support and participate in extremist and terrorist activity against other communities and the State.

Every successful terrorist attack is an intelligence failure. Having suffered from two major attacks in 2015, the French government and people will call for a reform of the security and intelligence system. This should include measures not only to enhance its human intelligence collection but also technical collection.

Advances in encryption have rendered many communications by IS unreadable by governments. Governments should pass legislation to ensure that Silicon Valley companies design their products in ways that will allow national security agencies to monitor terrorist communications.

Implications for Asia

Both West and East are under a sustained and severe threat from IS. No country is immune.

Challenged by IS’s success in Paris, groups that compete with IS, most notably al-Qaeda, are likely to strike beyond Europe. With extensive travel and communication between the Middle East and North Africa with Asia, the threat is proliferating. IS ideology resonates with a tiny segment of Muslims from Toronto to Paris and Jakarta to Sydney.

Asia-Pacific governments should share best practices to build counter terrorism capacity. Governments that are advanced in countering terrorism will need to strengthen existing partnerships with emerging counterterrorist agencies in Southeast Asia, and expand relationships with those in the Middle East and Africa.

In addition, strategies should be seeded in community engagement and terrorist rehabilitation. Governments in the region should invest more in countering extremist and terrorist propaganda online. IS ideology is sprinting when governments are crawling.

France is not an exception: governments worldwide are unprepared and underprepared to meet the challenges posed by the IS, their associated groups and their homegrown networks. The attacks are a consequence of the failure of the international system to craft and implement a global strategy to stabilize conflict zones and fight its vicious byproduct, global terrorism.

Every successful terrorist attack is an attack against humanity. The world must come together to fight terrorism perpetrated by groups and individuals.

Rohan Gunaratna heads the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.

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