The attacks in Paris were terrible. But we should have seen it coming.
Maybe it’s the sheer brutality and savagery of the crime. Or perhaps it’s the breathlessness of our 24/7 nonstop shock-and-awe media that elevates everything to the same level of sensational, galactic importance and then covers it relentlessly and obsessively. Maybe it’s because, despite all our worry about jihadi terrorism, there hasn’t been a successful major terrorist attack directed from abroad against Europe in 10 years — and against America in almost 15.
Still, watching the coverage of the terrorist attack against Charlie Hebdo, I got the distinct feeling that the world, America, and many folks who follow these issues were somehow truly surprised by the attacks in Paris — and that, to borrow a line from Toby Keith’s song about the 9/11 attacks, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,” we were stunned by a “mighty sucker punch [that] came flying in from somewhere in the back.”
But what happened in France this past week was no sucker punch. It might have been a realization of France’s (and America’s) worst nightmare — indigenous terrorists with ties to foreign groups attacking a soft target. But it surely shouldn’t have come as a surprise. An attack in Europe and even in the United States was inevitable, even overdue. More will come. And here’s why.
We’ve been living on borrowed time.
That Europe and the United States haven’t been attacked successfully — and even repeatedly — in recent years by al Qaeda core, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or even the Islamic State is just a stunning reality. Think about how this equation reflects that reality: Success (the measure of the impact of an attack) = Time (the span of which to pull one off is virtually unlimited) multiplied by Effort (the energy and manpower invested by small but determined groups of jihadis who have committed themselves to a lifelong campaign designed to inflict broad-sweeping harm on America and its allies). They won’t give up. It’s what they do. So, you’d think that S=T*E guarantees a kind of longevity to the terrorist enterprise and perhaps the inevitability that they will be successful from time to time.
And we live in free and open societies that are vulnerable to attack and where guns and people with grievances operate freely. Maybe I’ve been watching too many movies, but it can’t be that hard for jihadis to walk into crowded restaurants, movie theaters, or malls with explosives-packed backpacks or automatic weapons and kill people. After all, in the United States, attacks by deranged and disturbed individuals — or as we now call them, lone wolves — happen all too frequently. So how is it that they are not happening on a larger scale? Are we that good at prevention and preemption? Are the bad guys really that incompetent? Is the difficulty of coordinating an attack — preemptive surveillance, weapons acquisition, operational security — really all that complicated? We’ve had plenty of near misses. Maybe we’ve been lucky. And if we have, will our luck hold?
And the French, too.
Clearly, pulling off attacks in Europe are a good deal easier than they are in the United States. This is a result of a few things: Europe’s proximity to the Middle East, its larger number of alienated and unhappy Muslims, more porous borders, the high rate of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment, the growth of the European right, and the economic downturn of the last decade. Combined together, these elements result in a pretty nasty witches’ brew to make Europe a more fertile ground for recruitment and radicalization.
And as seriously as the French take their counterterrorism efforts, monitoring and surveilling mosques and prospective jihadis, they contend with a purer and more unadulterated version of the problem. Europe’s largest Muslim population (5 million in France) combines with perhaps its most ideological right-wing nationalism and commitment to free expression and secularism. It’s no coincidence that France is estimated to have the largest contingent of European foreign fighters.
When you add in the fact that the Charlie Hebdo office had been firebombed in 2011, that its editor had been threatened in a 2013 edition of the jihadi Inspire magazine, and that the trail of radicalism of one of the Kouachi brothers stretched back almost a decade, then it was hardly a shocker that an attack occurred in France, a country where secularism has collided with Muslim sensibilities over issues such as headscarves, in an environment in which there is latent and overt anti-Muslim feelings, and against a publication that had become a symbol of the French commitment to free speech and secularism and a breaker of icons of good taste, conventional niceties, and political correctness.
Draining the swamp.
When we consider the inevitably of these kinds of attacks and the likelihood they will continue, we have to also accept the reality that they will either come from or be inspired or directed by groups in the world’s angriest, most broken, and most dysfunctional region. And this isn’t going to change anytime soon. This region cannot heal itself, and it cannot be healed by others. A full 20 percent of Arab states are now either engaged in full-scale civil war or are in distress of major proportions (Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Iraq). And the states that are functional — if they’re not trying to buy their way out of the problem (Qatar) — are in the business of suppressing and repressing jihadis (Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf). The Sunni-Shiite divide only adds to further polarization, and the anger at the West is deep and unforgiving, mainly driven by jihadi fantasies and conspiracies but also rooted partly in U.S. policies that offend, intrude, and humiliate. Clearly, U.S. support for authoritarian Arab regimes and for Israel, along with U.S. interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, have given the jihadis great talking points for recruitment.
We can rationalize all we want. We can focus on the pivot or rebalance to Asia, Europe’s recession, crazy North Korea, Iran with a bomb, or an irredentist Russia. But the greatest near-term security threat to the United States and its allies will continue to come from the mess that is the Middle East, where a combination of vicious jihadi ideology and either authoritarianism and bad governance or the lack of governance in failed or failing states creates a perfect storm that invariably will blow our way again. We don’t have to panic or lose our collective minds and invade Arab countries with social science projects that cost trillions of dollars. Nor are we now facing the imminent threat of another 9/11, which remains the second bloodiest day in U.S. history, when more Americans were killed on the soil of the continental United States than on any other day in the country’s history, save one day during the Battle of Antietam.
Still, the brutal murders at Charlie Hebdo by French Muslim homegrown terrorists, perhaps linked not to the Islamic State but to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, should be a painful reminder that before we talk about “ultimately defeating ISIS,” we should realize that we haven’t yet defeated the groups that are even more threatening at the moment. The savagery of the attacks should shock us, anger us, and impel us to defend freedom of speech and conscience more bravely than ever and to be focused and smart in meeting the challenge. But it should not surprise us. If the Cold War was the defining feature of the late 20th century’s international scene, then the fight against jihadi ideology may well be one of the most significant challenges of the 21st. And we better be ready. In this sense, we really are all Charlie. And our jihadi adversaries would love to make it so.
Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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