Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Were the Paris Attacks the First Phase of Coming Urban Warfare in Europe?

By Col. Gary Anderson, USMC (Ret.) Best Defense urban warfare bureau chief Paris was spared the horrors of urban combat during the two World Wars, but it may well face the full fury of urban jihad in the years ahead. The City of Light is not alone in this. European cities with large Muslim populations ...

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By Col. Gary Anderson, USMC (Ret.)

Best Defense urban warfare bureau chief

By Col. Gary Anderson, USMC (Ret.)
Best Defense urban warfare bureau chief

Paris was spared the horrors of urban combat during the two World Wars, but it may well face the full fury of urban jihad in the years ahead. The City of Light is not alone in this. European cities with large Muslim populations are prime targets for urban insurgencies, but America is not immune. The recent French terror attacks have a depressing similarity to the random violence that began the urban insurgencies in Iraq in 2003. At that time, the insurgents were described as a few Baathist “dead enders”. By 2004, the insurgents controlled whole sections of Baghdad and other major cities, and the battles to retake Fallujah compared with any urban battles ever fought by the U.S. military.

More disturbing, the draconian measures that had to be employed to regain urban control in Iraq are alien to anything that democratic Europeans have had to contend with since World War II, or Americans have faced since the Civil War. Whole Iraqi neighborhoods, and even cities, were walled off; police and military checkpoints made the mere act of going to the grocery store an ordeal. Snipers and improvised explosives closed schools, and made families virtual prisoners in their own homes.

All insurgencies have three phases. What is happening in Paris, Marseilles, and other European cities show dangerous signs of the first phase of urban guerrilla warfare. The organization of cells for terror strikes is usually local. Internet recruiting has replaced clandestine neighborhood organization. Small-scale strikes are designed to undermine confidence in civil authority and foment distrust among ethnic and religious groups. In France, there are signs that distrust is being sewn toward the Muslim community and the rest of society.

In the second phase, insurgent cells set up shadow governments to parallel the community governance and policing functions. The jihadists, whether the Islamic State or al Qaeda-associated groups, clearly want to drive a wedge between Muslim communities and the majority of the citizens in the host nations. Radical Islamists need to halt assimilationist tendencies as they attempt to impose their view of Islam as the predominant, one-world-wide view of Islam. Muslims will be forced to submit to the jihadist view, or face dire consequences. In this phase, assassination or intimidation of moderate Muslim clerics and other religious leaders will be designed to lead to the third phase, which will be open jihad in the streets of the West.

The creation of jihadist ghettos and Sharia law is the third phase. To date, the “no go” zones for police in the Muslim quarters of some European cities is still largely journalistic fiction, but it is the reality the jihadists are looking to create. Turning Paris, London, or Minneapolis into cities resembling Baghdad and Fallujah circa 2004-2009 with blast walls cordoning off entire neighborhoods replete with IEDs, snipers, and sectarian murder, would be a radical Islamist dream come true. The possibility of hundreds or thousands of Muslim deaths in such conflicts does not faze the jihadists. Victims will be portrayed as martyrs, even if the martyrdom is unwilling.

What do international jihadists gain from this? They don’t seriously believe that the jihad insurgency will overrun the West in the near term. However, if we look at it from their perspective, it makes perfect sense. If you want the European and American crusaders out of the Middle East, and Muslim portions of Africa and west Asia, what better way than to threaten them than with jihad at home? We already have a crop of politicians in both parties who believe that an “America first” doctrine is needed. Fighting jihadists at home would be a great campaign theme for isolationists in Europe and the United States. For the jihadists, this is a win-win. They distract western attention from their efforts in the traditional Muslim homelands, while portraying themselves of defenders of Muslims worldwide. This is what strategists describe as a perfect economy-of-force approach.

This urban jihad strategy need not succeed. The best way to defeat an insurgency is to make sure it never starts. Good governance, proper intelligence and police work, combined with community involvement with moderate Muslim leaders, can stop an insurgency before it gets started seriously. When you have to resort to blast walls, checkpoints, and military counter IED patrols in your city center, you have failed at preemption.

France is the most vulnerable nation in the west, because its Muslims are the least assimilated of any in Europe. We Americans have generally done a better job, but no one should be complacent.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps Colonel who has conducted several studies of urban warfare. The research for this article comes from a book he is writing titled The Theory and Practice of Jihad. He lectures at George Washington University.

Miguel Medina / AFP

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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