Thursday 22 August 2019

Isil brings its atavism to the very heart of Europe

France's internal cohesion and Europe's joint stance on handling migration are at risk after Friday's act of hyper-terrorism, writes Dan O'Brien

Juliette Charton from Paris pictured at the Solidarity with Paris march through Dublin city centre
Juliette Charton from Paris pictured at the Solidarity with Paris march through Dublin city centre
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

City of light. City of slaughter. For the second time this year, gunmen have run amok on the streets of Paris, on this occasion deliberately and indiscriminately butchering as many people as they could before killing themselves.

Friday night's appalling attacks differ from those of January. The implications will be more serious too.

The most obvious difference between these attacks and those at the beginning of the year is the sheer scale of the carnage. As of Saturday afternoon, the numbers murdered were multiples of the numbers killed during the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices and the siege of a supermarket over a few short days in January.

Another reason that these attacks will have greater implications is the widening of the targets, which included a sports venue, a concert venue, restaurants and cafes. These are places everyone frequents all the time in a modern city. The message is clear: nowhere is safe and you might be next.

Short of deploying a weapon of mass destruction, the demonstration that war-like conditions can be unleashed on a city such as Paris at any time is among the most "effective" ways imaginable to dial up a general sense of terror. As happened in Mumbai a decade ago, even relatively small groups armed with cheap and basic weapons marauding through a normally peaceful city can cause great loss of life, and impact significantly on millions of inhabitants going about their daily lives.

The most immediate implication of the attacks is for the security services - why were the intelligence agencies caught unawares? While the French authorities are reported to have disrupted numerous attacks over the course of the past year, that an outrage of this magnitude took place can only be described as an intelligence failure.

An attack as coordinated as Friday's requires a lot of planning and a lot of communication among those involved. Communication creates vulnerabilities that security agencies can exploit. That clearly did not happen in this case.

As always after such an atrocity, consideration will have to be given to ramping up surveillance and ­giving those involved in the dark arts of espionage and counter-terrorism more power. A more intrusive state may be a price worth paying for greater security. It is a debate that the French will have in the days and weeks to come. It is probably one we in Ireland will have to have sooner or later.

But the security response to the threat goes beyond snooping and must include arrests and interrogations. This brings its own challenges. The perennial problem in dealing with terrorism is getting the balance right: come down too lightly, and there is a risk attackers and would-be attackers are not caught; come down too hard, and there is a risk of pushing the wavering few who are sympathetic to extremist causes into the arms of the butchers.

Apart from the risk of further attacks, the threat of societal polarisation is the most serious danger for France. Just last week an opinion poll showed that 28pc of those questioned said they will support Marine Le Pen, the leader of the aggressively reactionary National Front, in the 2017 presidential election. That is more than either the incumbent, Francois Hollande, or the former president and probable candidate of the centre-right, Nicolas Sarkozy, have achieved.

Because of the two-round nature of the electoral system in France's presidential vote, the chances of Le Pen winning power remains low - her father got to the second run-off round of the presidential election in 2002 but was thrashed 82-18 by Jacques Chirac.

But Madame Le Pen is clearly on the rise and there is every indication that she will make it to the second round of the presidential vote in 2017. The objective of many of her party's supporters, of a France unsullied (as they would see it) by alien influences, can only come to be shared by more people if the 4.7million Muslim minority (8pc of the population) comes to be viewed as a threat.

Linked to the polarisation question is immigration. If the attackers are found to be recent arrivals, and if they used the exodus from Syria as cover to get into Europe (it was being reported yesterday that Syrian and Egyptian passports had been found on the dead assailants), then it will make the domestic debate on immigration more fraught than it already is, and not only in France.

It would also likely further strain relations among countries, as different lessons are drawn from the attacks. There were indications on Saturday that this is already happening as the Polish government declared it would not give asylum to the migrants it had previously agreed to take in under an EU refugee-sharing deal.

Finally, a word on the "what about" brigade. As always happens when attacks of this kind take place, there are those who say that a particular country, or the West in general, is reaping what it has sown. If this post-colonial border hadn't been drawn in such a way or if that military intervention hadn't happened, all would be well in the world the what-abouters imply. Peace would reign. Everyone would live in harmony and nobody would be engaging in acts of atavistic barbarity.

This is an ahistorical fantasy. It is also a form of narcissism. In the perverse world-view of such people, nothing bad happens on the planet that is not centred on us in the West - from climate change to child labour to terrorism itself.

The big European powers and the US have, of course, misused and abused their clout at times (they have also helped create a world order that has brought peace and increasing prosperity to a growing number of regions). But the notion that they are the root of all evil in the world is as ludicrous as the notion that the non-Western world is or ever was an Eden before the wicked West slithered in.

The Middle East illustrates this better than anywhere else. Human civilisation first arose in the very lands where Isil is strongest. Ten-thousand years ago, farming and urbanisation began in the "hilly flanks" of southern Turkey and northern Syria/Iraq. Kingdoms and states in the region have been warring ever since, including over millennia when what is now called the West was stuck in the stone age and utterly uninvolved in the affairs of the region.

Bad things have always happened. Why they continue to happen in that region to the extent that they do, and why Islamist extremism has become more prevalent in recent decades, are complex questions with no one-factor answers. It is unlikely there ever will, or can be, agreement on the precise reasons

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss