Unlike Post-9/11, Careful Policymaking Must Prevail

Francois Hollande, Barack Obama, David Cameron and Angela Merkel


November 18, 2015 14:12 EDT

Calm and considered policymaking is required in the coming days, weeks and months after the Paris attacks.

As we recover from the tragedy in Paris, we should reflect on many things. Make no mistake: We will look back on this in years to come as a watershed moment. In the same way that Britain remembers 7/7 and America 9/11, the French will mark 2015 as the year in which terrorism knocked on their door.

In the wake of the Umpqua Community College shootings in Oregon, US President Barack Obama said, “Our prayers are not enough.” Those words, although spoken in the context of unregulated gun control, also ring true in this context. So, what proportional actions should we be taking?

“Our Foreign Policy Causes Terrorism”

Combating terrorist organizations requires not only knowledge, but also an appreciation of their goals. Too often in the past have we looked on the actions of terrorist groups, understood their message and motivations, and not used that knowledge to enact meaningful change. After the al-Qaeda attacks in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, the message was clear that the group had switched its focus away from the near enemy to further afield. Instead of heeding this change in tactics and acting accordingly, the White House under President George W. Bush continued to prioritize more traditional threats of great power politics and rogue states, such as Russia. This allowed al-Qaeda to expose US deficiencies when the terrorist organization attacked on September 11, 2001. In short, effective strategy does not just consider your own goals and motives, but the enemy’s ones as well.

It is easy to fall into the trap of placing ourselves at the center of these attacks. The Islamic State (IS) has claimed the killings were in response to French airstrikes on its territory. The assumption it wishes us to make is that if we stop intervening in Syria and Iraq, then, for the moment at least, it will stop attacking us on our streets. In short, our foreign policy caused this.

There are undoubtedly elements of Western foreign policy which, over the last 14 years, have fed into this narrative. It is difficult to argue that our forces are representatives of liberty, democracy and tolerance when images such as those from Abu Ghraib prison surface. However, it simply is not as cut and dry as “our foreign policy causes terrorism.”

IS was borne just as much out of Sunni marginalization under the government of then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as out of the failed invasion of Iraq. The vast majority of IS targets over the last two years have been sectarian. It is the Yazidi minority, Kurds and anyone who does not subscribe to the group’s extreme brand of Salafi jihadism that suffers. All terror attacks have the same sentiment at their core: the goal of creating fear in those who are subject to their deeds. With these thoughts in mind, we should perhaps reassess our idea of the true intended audience of these attacks.

The Paris attacks were just as significant for supporters and inhabitants of the Islamic State as they were for the West. #ParisIsBurning began as a celebratory trend among IS Twitter feeds and networks. Those who live under its tyranny in Syria and Iraq have been the subject of a concerted coalition effort from Western, Arab and Russian forces, Syrian opposition groups, Kurdish Peshmerga forces and a various assortment of rag-tag Iraqi forces. Sinjar has been reclaimed, the Mosul Dam is in control of Iraqi forces for now and falling oil prices are significantly impacting the IS black market revenue streams. Despite this, the Islamic State has been, and continues to be, successful. However, the group currently inhabits a position best described as precarious. The ability to strike back, to show IS supporters—those who live under its protection—that it is capable of spectacular feats is key to the organization’s continuing survival.

There is also the motive to provoke an overreaction that enhances government repression and thereafter radicalizes previously moderate members of their target audience. France is home to a significant Algerian population, around 500,000 according to a census conducted in 2011, and many were welcomed after the Algerian War of Independence. Here was a perfect example of disproportionate measures of repression—detention without trial, the liberal application of torture—that led to further resistance and eventual defeat. A poll conducted in 1956 indicated that as many as 40% of those living on the French mainland felt that government policy and tactics were responsible for the worsening security situation in Algeria.

The world has come a long way since the 1950s and 1960s. However, in the immediate aftermath of the recent attacks, some family members of the terrorists were quickly arrested, before subsequently being released without charge. French authorities have also carried out hundreds of raids in the last 72 hours across the country and have arrested over 20 people. Some 115,000 police and army personnel have been mobilized, and random stop-and-search procedures conducted in Paris have been the subject of much Twitter debate. These measures are more moderate than those of 50 years ago, but we must be careful of enacting policy that either victimizes innocent communities or compounds already-existing sentiments of injustice and inequality.

Armies of Rome

In the same way the 9/11 attacks were a tool of removing US forces and interference from Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, IS strives in its actions to encourage the “armies of Rome” to come, fight and fall at Dabiq. The Islamic State’s main online publication—also called Dabiq—is testament to this fact. We must not be tempted by emotionally-motivated reactions to make the same mistakes of rushed, ill thought actions that dominated the periods preceding the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. With these goals in mind, the following measures should be considered as practical courses of action that allow us to act decisively in the face of continuing barbarism and hostility.

Calm and considered policymaking is required in the coming days, weeks and months—and the political space to achieve this must be facilitated by a patient, informed and understanding electorate. Rash responses to 9/11 caused wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that, however unpalatable it is to digest, cost us much more than what we gained.

There is most certainly a place in our retaliatory strategy for a significant military response. There is a good chance the British government will bring forward plans for a vote to extend airstrikes into Syria. This vote should go ahead, as planned, before we introduce further military measures to tackle IS. Since the initial vote was rejected in 2013, members of parliament have seen the security situation in Syria, and now Europe, continue to deteriorate. There will be those from all sides of the British Parliament desperate to perform the cathartic action of reversing their decision.

French President Francois Hollande is already surging ahead with increasing military intervention, authorizing strikes on the IS “capital” of Raqqa. He has termed the attacks as an act of war. France has a recent history of military intervention to protect its interests in Mali. If this is to be the case, Britain will be involved in some capacity, duty bound by Article 5 of the NATO agreement that enshrines the principle that an attack on one is an attack on all. This is compounded by the recently agreed Defence Co-operation Treaty between the United Kingdom and France. What that involvement will look like is as yet unclear. Air support is almost certain, boots on the ground less so.

There should be a debate around whether the Schengen free movement zone is a realistic model that ensures national security in the current climate. As nonsensical and illogical as it would be to blame refugees for the Paris attacks, it is equally ignorant and foolhardy to fail to acknowledge that free and fluid movement of thousands of people hailing from the countries and regions where groups like IS operate is not a very real and present security dilemma. A temporary reintroduction of European-wide border controls will help regulate and assist safe passage for genuine refugees, while obstructing those who wish to do us harm. These limited measures should remain in place, at least until we can ascertain where and how these attackers came to plan, coordinate and carry out their actions.

Tied in with the issue of domestic security, a review of intelligence structures should take place immediately. Particular focus should be placed on the issue of intelligence sharing. A more comprehensive and formal intelligence sharing network between European Union member states—similar to the Five Eyes agreement between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the US and the UK—should be enacted. It has become clear that some of these individuals were already known to law enforcement agencies, some for significant periods of time. We should, therefore, expect measures surrounding surveillance orders and pre-charge detention to be enhanced.

George W. Bush

George W. Bush © Shutterstock

The French Republic and Minorities

France needs to assess how best to remedy continuing problems of social cohesion. France was founded out of the French Revolution as a republic, where all of its inhabitants are members of the nation state of France above all else. While this model of overriding nationalism may be appropriate for societies that are culturally homogenous, it is a policy that can become problematic with increasing diversity.

France has had a large Muslim population of around 5 million people—an aftermath of the era of colonialism. However, to say that this large immigrant population has completely and successfully integrated into France would be optimistic to say the least. In Paris, huge banlieues house large immigrant populations, mostly from North and Sub-Saharan Africa. According to The Economist, in some of these areas, unemployment is twice the national average and almost 40% of inhabitants live below the poverty line. Societal attitudes also need to change. Just over a year ago, it was reported that a Muslim woman was forced to leave a performance of La Traviata at the Opera Bastille because the cast refused to perform to someone wearing a niqab (full-face veil). It is only so long before people from minorities, people with different priorities and diverse identities begin to ask: What does this republic do for me?

The Charlie Hebdo shootings, the beheadings at a factory near Lyon and now the Paris attacks are symptomatic of a fractured society that is struggling to integrate disparate societies and cultures. By returning simple freedoms to French Muslims, we can send the message of an accepting, multicultural society that is sensitive to the diverse needs of its citizenry. This is the key part of the counter-narrative that should form the bedrock of our retaliatory strategy and will provide the ultimate weapon against the ideas propagated by the Islamic State.

Some truths appear to become more apparent with every attack we experience. First, while terrorist organizations exist, we must accept that a certain level of violence will occasionally occur, casting us as victims. Second, though this may be the case, our societies are more resilient at dealing with this bloodshed than policymakers and commentators give credit. The resilience showed by those who inhabit cities where terrorist attacks are a constant fear—Baghdad, Kabul, Mogadishu—should be inspiration to us all. There is a worldwide movement against these groups of which we form a significant part.

No one is suggesting that we stand by and do nothing. However, the reality is that we cannot turn this around in a day, or perhaps even in a decade. Calm and considered policymaking is required in the coming days, weeks and months—and the political space to achieve this must be facilitated by a patient, informed and understanding electorate. Rash responses to 9/11 caused wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that, however unpalatable it is to digest, cost us much more than what we gained.

It is inescapable that the actions of ideas of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who came to prominence during the invasion of Iraq as the “Butcher of Fallujah,” feed a large part of the ideology portrayed by IS today. Let us not rush into those same decisions again—rash military action—without a thorough consideration of all the options available to us.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: US Department of State / Christopher Halloran /

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