Western indecision in Syria has allowed Daesh to grow strong, and enabled it to attack Europe. The Western response must be resolute abroad, and subtle at home, if it is to defeat Islamist extremism.
Sometimes an event occurs that should create clarity of purpose and lucidity of priorities. The Paris attacks are such an event. The tragedy must galvanise European and international support for a co-ordinated offensive against Daesh. Yet questions remain about how best to deal with terrorism at home.
France has seen terrorism’s face before: most recently in January, when Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket were the targets. But never, in modern times, has the soul of France been so thoroughly penetrated. French president Francois Hollande called the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13th “an act of war” by Daesh, the so-called ‘Islamic State’ terrorist organisation. And France’s first reaction has been war-like: the French air force launched heavy bombing raids on Raqqa, the headquarters of Daesh in Syria, on November 15th. That may bring some satisfaction, though it will not solve the problem of Islamist terrorism in Europe.
Since the start of the campaign against Daesh in September 2014, European governments have believed they could dislodge the ‘Islamic State’ from its sanctuary in Iraq and Syria through airstrikes. Yet Daesh has remained able to plot attacks abroad, attract recruits and gain millions of dollars selling oil. In the past month alone, Daesh has claimed, or is believed to have been behind, successful attacks in Ankara, the Sinai, Beirut and now Paris. This should now focus the attention of governments in the West and elsewhere.
Hollande’s rhetoric is reminiscent of George W Bush’s declaration of a ‘global war on terror’ against Al Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Daesh, in contrast to Al Qaeda in 2001, resembles a state in that it holds territory, which can be conquered. The priority should be to destroy the safe haven Daesh has in Iraq and Syria.
In his speech before the joint session of parliament on November 16th, Hollande told his defence minister to invoke article 42.7 of the Treaty on European Union. This ‘solidarity clause’ obliges other member-states to offer aid “by all the means in their power” in response to an armed attack. The clause has never been invoked before, and so its impact remains to be seen, though an EU military intervention is not likely. At the least, the clause forces traditionally neutral EU member-states, like Austria and Finland, to assist. Additionally, its invocation acknowledges that the EU has an important role to play in the battle against Daesh, especially within Europe’s borders. France would also have every right to invoke NATO’s article 5 — which would declare that it has been the subject of an armed attack, calling on its allies to help it. However, Hollande appears to prefer working through a coalition of the willing, rather than bringing NATO in. NATO’s presence in Syria might complicate any co-operation with Russia. Hollande is also seeking a UN Security Council resolution. If it explicitly mandates the use of force, it would be an additional rallying cry for a broad coalition.
Airstrikes, particularly limited to Iraqi territory as many European airstrikes are, have been practically useless. Air power by itself rarely wins wars. If the West can find reliable allies who can fight on the ground (including Kurdish forces, despite Turkish concerns), it should help them to do so. Yet the fight may require Western ‘boots on the ground’. The United States has already decided to send up to 50 Special Forces to fight Daesh. European governments should follow suit.
The lessons of past interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya are not that the West should never intervene militarily, but that it should not start a war without a plan for the day after. In Syria and Iraq, the day after has to include a political process to end the conflicts that have created the governance vacuum, which Daesh has filled. The difficulty of doing so, of course, should not be under-estimated.
Russia’s president Vladimir Putin may argue that Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad is the answer in Syria. He is not. Indeed, Assad has done his best to ensure that Daesh is the only opponent left on the battlefield: Syrian and Russian forces have struck against other groups fighting Assad much more often than against Daesh. Though perhaps not immediately, Assad will have to make way to allow Syria to move towards a more peaceful future. In its response, the West will have to work with many countries that have ulterior motives in Syria, including Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Europe must not be taken in by Putin’s suggestion that the West, Russia and Assad are now all on the same side in fighting against terrorism. Putin’s game in Syria is cynical. However, the presence of Russian forces in Syria means that the West has no choice but to co-ordinate with Russia, at least to ensure that Western and Russian aircraft stay out of each other’s way.
Europe must work with Turkey’s president Recep Erdogan: despite European concerns about increased authoritarianism in Turkey, the recent attack in Ankara suggests a convergence of interests to fight Daesh. Western governments have to convince Turkey not to undermine the relatively successful Kurdish fight against Daesh for fear of strengthening Kurdish separatists in Turkey. Aside from the military campaign against Daesh, Europe’s external borders must be better secured, for which Turkey’s co-operation is crucial.
The West also has to reconsider its relationship with Saudi Arabia: many of the most disturbing aspects of Daesh’s behaviour in Iraq and Syria reflect Riyadh’s regional propagation of its intolerant, fundamentalist Wahhabist ideology, including through Saudi-funded mosques and Islamic schools in Western countries. Saudi efforts to stop Daesh and its ideology have so far been half-hearted, as it chooses to prioritise fighting against Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen instead.
Despite the semblance of statehood, Daesh is also a network, and its offshoots have already emerged elsewhere across the Middle East. Assuming it can be defeated in Iraq and Syria, Daesh could well metastasise in Libya, Nigeria, Sinai, Afghanistan or elsewhere in the Levant. Still, it is better to disrupt Daesh and keep it on the run, than allow the benefits of a profitable sanctuary to accrue. This means Europe should prepare for a prolonged fight against the group.
European governments must balance the use of force abroad and the need to keep working within the framework of the rule of law at home. Daesh wants Western governments to over-react, thereby polarising communities and mobilising new recruits. Instead, Europe must avoid clamping down hard on Muslim communities. Though politicians like Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage and Geert Wilders will call for de facto anti-Muslim measures, Europe must stay true to its liberal and tolerant values. Police and security services should respond strongly to populist vigilantes and extremists who may step up violent attacks against Muslim targets.
One of the terrorists that attacked Paris on Friday left a fake Syrian passport behind. He had allegedly used it to enter the EU through Greece. This could well have been a planned move to reignite the already heated debate on Europe’s asylum policies — why would a terrorist leave a passport behind? European governments should not fall into Daesh’s trap by responding with knee-jerk reactions such as closing borders (though border controls may be necessary temporarily, to pursue and apprehend the suspects of the attacks). A ‘fortress Europe’ aimed at keeping out predominantly Muslim refugees would fuel the narrative of European Christians oppressing and fighting against Muslims.
More to the point, closing borders would give a false sense of security. There has always been a risk that jihadists may enter the EU posing as refugees. Identifying and stopping them demands adequate registering and fingerprinting on their arrival in the EU, and intelligence sharing among the 28 member-states, not a closing of the borders. In fact, many European plots have involved terrorists from Western countries. Some members of Daesh are jihadists with French, Belgian or British passports, returning from conflict zones (such as Syria) to strike in their home countries. To close the borders would do nothing to stop them: international law prohibits a country from denying entry to its own nationals — and if they are not spotted and put under surveillance by intelligence services, they can continue their activities unhindered from within their home countries. Others have not even left the country: Daesh propaganda ‘instructs’ its acolytes around the world to carry out attacks in its name.
Like many criminal organisations, Daesh mainly relies on difficult-to-trace internet communications which defy national borders. Instead of seeking false security in national isolation, more — and better — European intelligence and law enforcement co-operation is needed. To that end, the European Parliament should speed up an agreement on the use of passenger data for terrorist investigations (a directive that it has blocked for over four years, over privacy concerns). The EU should also overcome its problems with the US in the field of data sharing and co-ordinate with Washington to get access to US intelligence, including its no-fly lists, which includes known terrorists.
The attacks in Paris show that the Schengen agreements, and particularly the Schengen Information System (SIS) ‒ a database used by European governments to track persons of interest – are still not functioning properly. The SIS could be used in combination with other databases (such as Eurodac, which contains fingerprints of asylum seekers) to verify the identity of those arriving in Europe. The European Parliament has been reluctant to allow the interconnection of several databases for fears of privacy intrusion. It is now time for the Parliament to drop some of these claims and realise that such intelligence may benefit the EU as a whole: should a Schengen crisis emerge, it would challenge the EU project in its entirety. Europe should not dismantle Schengen, but improve it, by processing refugees more effectively, deploying many more border guards at Europe’s outer borders and improving information sharing among the member-states. These measures will be costly and take time to implement. But the EU can no longer accept an external border where massive inflows of third country nationals are dealt with in places which barely have electricity — such as the ‘processing centre’ on the Greek island Leros, where the allegedly fake refugee (on his way to carry-out the suicide attack in Paris) was fingerprinted.
But even if the EU had taken all these steps, the attacks might still not have been prevented. 14 years after 9/11, European governments remain unable to control the drivers of radicalisation in second- and third-generation Western Muslims. That leaves one, burning question: why have European citizens become so attracted to Daesh’s ideology that they are willing to kill, kill themselves and be killed, in its name? That is the clarity we still desperately seek.
Camino Mortera-Martinez is a research fellow and Brussels representative and Rem Korteweg is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.