In the aftermath of 9/11, the biggest fear that haunted US counter-terrorism officials was that al-Qaeda or its allies would somehow get hold of a weapon of mass destruction: a biological agent or a nuclear bomb.
As a series of more recent attacks have shown, notably in Mumbai, India, in 2008, and Wednesday in Paris, a handful of committed volunteers can send shockwaves around the world with tools no more sophisticated than an assault rifle.
In this age of the lightly-resourced, self-starting urban guerrilla, the jihadists have discovered a formula that lends a chilling new dimension to their trade. Not only can anyone be a victim, but with such a low bar to entry, anyone might be a perpetrator too. The brothers who shot dead 12 people at the satirical weekly newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, planned their killing spree in plain sight.
Add to this the high drama that Mumbai- and Paris-style attacks generate — televised scenes of manhunts, special forces and sieges — and they begin to look like an even more attractive force-multiplier. For the aim is never simply to kill for the sake of killing. Such attacks are always planned with broader political goals in mind. The key to defeating the extremists lies in seeing past the horror and understanding their logic.
The stakes have seldom been higher than they were in Mumbai in 2008, when a group of 10 volunteers trained in Pakistan held the city hostage for four days by staging a series of bomb and gun attacks on targets including hotels, a cafe and transport terminal in which 166 people were killed. Images of smoke and flames billowing from the ornate Taj Mahal Palace Hotel transfixed a global audience. But the greater danger lay in a spike in tensions with Pakistan, which India blamed for harboring Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant group that orchestrated the attack. With the two countries locked in a nuclear standoff after three wars, a small team of gunmen armed with AK-47s might have sparked a clash between armies.
In Paris, the goals of the militants were different, but parallels remain. As in Mumbai, where the perpetrators were carefully groomed by a large umbrella organization, it seems that at least one of the Paris attackers had received training abroad. According to Western intelligence, Said Kouachi, one of the brothers, had spent months at a camp in Yemen run by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group’s most active affiliate.
Militants enmeshed in trans-national networks are often easier to identify than unmoored individuals imbibing propaganda on Islamist websites. The problem in Paris was not in spotting Said and his brother Cherif — both were under police surveillance — but in pre-empting their plan. The failure to stop them has stoked a growing sense in Europe that more such killing sprees are inevitable. Andrew Parker, the head of MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, admitted as much this week when he warned that although security agencies were doing their utmost, they could not hope to stop every incident.
How then to respond? In the wake of Mumbai, a more devastating episode even than the appalling massacre in a Paris newsroom, the Indian government showed admirable restraint that curbed any risk of a hot war with Pakistan. In France, the jihadists nurse more insidious goals: stoking a cycle of suspicion and prejudice that will leave Muslim communities feeling increasingly isolated, and therefore more liable to yield them fresh recruits. Amid the outrage and grief, an already difficult atmosphere for Muslims in France could become even more poisonous. Strong emotions are not supportive of nuanced debate. An ‘us-versus-them’ mentality is precisely what the gunmen hope to impose.
French President Francois Hollande has already sought to defuse such a prospect by making a statesmanlike appeal for unity. Muslim leaders have used Friday prayers to urge their followers to join countrywide protests against the attack. Yet it is too soon to say whether France’s political class will have the wisdom to hold an honest debate about the widening divisions and growing xenophobia in their country, and why such a large number of French citizens have joined aspiring European jihads flocking to Syria and Iraq.
Nor is the question of how to neutralise the urban terror threat that spurred the attacks in Paris and Mumbai purely a conundrum for Western governments or Pakistan’s neighbours.
As David Kilcullen, the counter-insurgency expert, has argued in his 2013 book Out of the Mountains, we will see more violence erupting in increasingly contested and over-crowded cities in central America, Africa and the Middle East, fuelled by a growing nexus of conflict and organised crime. There is always a choice as to how to respond. As the West has learned from the price it paid during a 13-year war in Afghanistan, launched within weeks of the collapse of the Twin Towers, it rarely pays to react in haste. (reuters.com)