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Paris has redefined terrorism for the West

Paris has redefined terrorism for the West
Published 16 Nov 2015   Follow @arcanakhalil

'Organised from abroad with complicity from within'. This is how French President Francois Hollande described the atrocious terrorist attacks that befell the city of lights this past weekend. The dead and the wounded are still being counted and a manhunt is underway for an eighth accomplice. There is still much we do not know and information that has not yet been made public. 

But what is clear is that this latest terrorist attack is a deadly and complex amalgam of external and internal elements that demands another reordering of the terrorist threat picture as well as domestic and international security policies. Like 9/11 fourteen years ago, this Friday the 13th terrorist attack will upend the West's assessment of the threat of terrorism and its foreign policy towards the Middle East.

Crowds and tributes outside the French Embassy in Berlin over the weekend (Photo: Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

 For at least the past five years, Western intelligence and security agencies have assessed the main domestic threat comes from 'lone wolf' attackers;  individuals or small groups inspired by the propaganda of international terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS, but not directed by them.

'Mumbai-style' attacks — multiple coordinated ambushes with small arms and suicide bombs — were certainly possible but appeared to be the purview of other capitals in the Middle East and South Asia. Sophisticated, audacious attacks a la 9/11, directed and organised by an international terrorist organisation, were a distinct but fading possibility. The consensus was that ISIS was a potent, but regional, threat and its focus was on state-building, consolidating territory in the Levant and building legitimacy for its caliphate.

What makes the Paris attacks particularly troubling is that it appears to be a confounding mix of all three trends. These were homegrown violent extremists, directed by a well funded international organisation that controls vast resources and territory, hitting purely civilian, soft targets in a sophisticated manner. [fold]

Intelligence officials are now saying that the attackers communicated with members of ISIS in Syria beforehand, bolstering the group's claim of responsibility. A Syrian passport was found near the body of one of the attackers, suggesting that he infiltrated Europe through the wave of recent refugees. The attacks were carried out in a sophisticated and coordinated manner, suggesting a certain level of military training and direction like Mumbai in 2008. Authorities are now searching for one of three brothers involved in the attack, all of whom lived, and apparently radicalised, in Europe. Another assailant was a native of Courcouronnes, France. That makes at least four of the attackers French citizens. 

Like 9/11 before it, it has taken a dynamic terrorist threat in the West to shock our attention towards yet another festering asymmetric threat stemming from structural decay in the Middle East. Unlike 9/11, this terrorist threat is more complex because of the overlay of domestic extremism. As articulated by one journalist; this is a  'messy reality that presents Mr Hollande with a particularly stark quandary: Taking the fight even more aggressively to Syria and Iraq, as he pledged to do on Saturday, carries the risk of inviting still more attacks from the Islamic State and its sympathisers and of fanning simmering divisions between Muslims and non-Muslims in France.'  However, now that it is abundantly clear that ISIS  has a global, not regional, focus, a more robust and coordinated military response against ISIS territory and a political solution for Syria are absolutely needed. 

As long as the terrorism threats were thought to be distinct — domestic homegrown vs internationally directed — the West could continue to dither on Syria and contain the domestic terrorism threat.

We no longer have that luxury.

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