I dearly wish I had not been right.
Back in early September, I did a post at this blog about potential terrorism in France and other European countries, under the title of The Age of Permanent Jihad. I wrote that
The point is not just that many younger French Muslims are increasingly radicalized, but that they potentially have increased access to really dangerous heavy weapons, including automatic rifles, missiles, and even anti-tank armaments like Milan missiles. These are flowing into Europe from nearby battlefronts – in the Balkans, Libya and elsewhere …. The [French] army has made contingency plans for the “reappropriation of national territory”, meaning to win back control of neighborhoods where the population become hostile to the security forces and where guns are easily obtainable. And “guns” in this case means Kalashnikovs, possibly backed up by missiles.
At the time, the projection seemed grim, and one journal turned down a related piece I wrote on the grounds of its fantastic nature. And then we have the horrific French news from the past two days, with all those automatic weapons on the streets of Paris.
And presumably, London next.
In no particular order, here are some points arising from Friday’s events:
1. Matters would have been even worse if the attackers had achieved what was apparently the main component of the attack, namely the planned multiple-suicide bombings at the international football game. One bomb inside the stadium to create a panic, then two more bombers to meet fleeing fans at the exits. It’s an obvious enough tactic, that different groups have been flirting with for years. I first encountered the idea as a hypothetical nightmare for security agencies some forty years ago, in the context of crowded department stores and Christmas shopping.
What do you do when you hear or see something terrifying? You run in the opposite direction, and (as you then discover) into the zone of greatest danger. If the tactic had succeeded in Paris on Friday, it could have added hundreds (at least) more fatalities. Trust me, ISIS/Daesh will try and repeat the plan until they finally get it right.
So what are the implications? Assume you know that groups are planning a two-pronged attack like that against a sporting event, whether in the US or Europe. What do you do? The days of full body searches at football stadiums might not be far removed. And also for Christmas shoppers?
Oh, and please note that two of the suicide attackers were outside the stadium, so would not have been picked up by even the most thorough and professional searches of fans entering. Their job was to remain there until the crowds flooded out.
Dare I suggest that this is, by far, the biggest practical lesson from Black Friday that nobody seems to be paying attention to?
2. This is absolutely NOT intended as a comment on US gun debates, but here is an irony. Regular firearms are very difficult to obtain or hold legally in most of Europe. Military ordnance, though, including automatic rifles, easily crosses Europe’s eastern borders, mainly from the Balkans. There is no reason why missiles and anti-tank weapons should not follow. These weapons used to come in via protected diplomatic bags of various embassies, but now, there is no need for such subterfuge: just throw them in the back of the truck. Once the weapons cross the borders, the Schengen policy of free movement within the European Union means they can reach the soil of any signatory country (stressing the latter). You want a handgun? Completely illegal! But how about a nice fully auto assault rifle instead?
One key question: is there any way whatever of removing those weapons from the streets of western Europe? Just look at one hotspot, the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, and ask how many weapons are floating around there? And then extend the question to comparable areas of Paris, Rome, Vienna, Madrid, London, Bradford, Malmö, Eindhoven …
I hate to say it, but Schengen’s days are likely numbered.
4. Speaking of ironies…. We’ll probably never know for sure, but my guess is that one accomplice (?) of this latest terror event will also be its main beneficiary. Maybe more than an accomplice.
From the start of the Syrian crisis, the Assad regime has deliberately and repeatedly favored the growth of the extreme Islamist opposition in order to discredit moderates, and that primarily meant building up ISIS/Daesh. We are now at the stage where Western countries are happy to attack ISIS, but not yet to form the overt alliance with Assad that is the logical next step. (Russia, of course, is a long term ally and sponsor). The worse ISIS looks and behaves globally, the more willing countries are to go the whole hog and support Assad’s government.
I have not a shred of doubt that ISIS/Daesh organized and carried out these latest attacks, but the Syrian government might well have offered covert assistance, because it was so much in their interests to do so. That government has long had a potent intelligence presence in France, and they have used proxies to carry out terror attacks on French soil. (Witness the Paris bomb campaigns of 1986, and others more recently). And if the Syrian mukhabarat knew about the planned attacks in advance , they certainly were not letting on.
For the French at least, the Paris attacks are the last straw. In consequence, France, and presumably other European countries, will now be doing exactly what they swore a few years ago that they would never do, namely to tolerate the Assad regime, and even to support it militarily. Against all odds and predictions from c.2011, Assad’s government will survive and flourish, whether or not he personally is part of it.
So who is the main beneficiary of the attacks? Cui bono?
So we would have an operation with some sponsors trying to use it for one cause, and others seeking a diametrically opposite outcome? Sounds like plenty of other precedents in the history of terrorism over the past century or so.
My previous column ended thus:
Is the militant jihadi tradition really here to stay as a fundamental and growing part of Islam? And if so, does the West have to learn to live with a permanent threat of lethal terrorism on its own soil? Surely, such a fact would have enormous political consequences, for European nations, but also the US. This might be a good time to think: what would those consequences be? Are we looking at the key domestic political divisions of the 2020s?
Still, it seems to me, a good question.
My home country of Wales is home to one of the oldest Muslim communities in Western Europe. The head of the Muslim Council of Wales is Saleem Kidwai, whose views on ISIS/Daesh and the terrorists are very close to mine. Basically, he says, they are not human beings. He is also right when he says they betray the faith: “Your acts define your faith not your words.” Where I disagree is with any claim that those movements somehow stand outside Islam altogether. They represent a loathsome version of Islam, but it really is a strand of that tradition.