In the years since what Isis has described as the “blessed operation” of 11 September 2001, the world has never been free from the threat of jihadist terror. But there were periods when that threat appeared to be receding. The Paris massacres and their troubled aftermath were evidence that the menace is now greater than ever. In their scope, ruthlessness and malevolence, the attacks felt like the dawn of a renewed era of mass terror. “The first of the storm” was how Isis hailed its terrible deed.
Yet Paris and its people were also the latest in a grim catalogue of victims: Beirut, Baghdad, Sinai, Ankara, Tunisia. Since proclaiming a “caliphate” in June 2014, Isis has advanced with lethal speed. Unlike its precursor al-Qaeda, it occupies territory, having conquered swaths of Iraq and Syria. This quasi-state provides Isis with both an ideological basis for external aggression and a training ground for apprentice jihadists. The threat is not merely quantitatively, but qualitatively different from previous forms of Islamism. All those, Muslim and non-Muslim, who do not subscribe to the extreme Salafist doctrine of Isis are regarded as legitimate and even essential targets.
It was understandable that the president of France, François Hollande, confronted by what happened, used the language of “war” in response. Yet such rhetoric risks validating Isis’s pretensions of statehood and creating false expectations of “victory” against a Hydra-headed foe. As the former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin observed, the experience of the “war on terror” should be caution enough.
If France is now at war with Isis, it has been at war for some time. Indeed, its intensified air strikes on the Isis stronghold of Raqqa in Syria were cited by the group as justification for its murderous rampage. For more than a year, the UK has participated in air raids in Iraq “at the invitation of the Iraqi government”. The Prime Minister has long signalled his belief that Britain should extend its involvement to Syria. Fear of defeat in the Commons has prevented David Cameron from acting as he would wish.
There is an understandable and even admirable impulse to act. What are expressions of “solidarity” with France worth if the UK declines to join forces against Isis and allows its allies to defend its interests? Yet, without a multinational plan to destroy the terror group and reclaim the territory it has conquered, would British air strikes on Isis in Syria amount to anything more than a gesture?
The possibility of UK participation through Nato, as in the case of Kosovo, or through the UN should not be disregarded. However, as Mr Cameron is increasingly prepared to acknowledge, unless accompanied by moves towards a wider peace plan and political settlement in Syria, air strikes will be largely symbolic if not supported by ground forces.
In Britain, expressions of sympathy with France coexist with the fear and knowledge that such atrocities could be replicated in London. Seven terrorist attacks have been thwarted here in the past year; the threat, as assessed by independent officials, is “severe”.
It is a fortnight since Theresa May, the Home Secretary, introduced the draft Investigatory Powers Bill, which would provide the security services with new rights to monitor internet communications. Terrorists have failed without such legislation and could yet succeed with it but with sufficient judicial oversight, there is a strong case for the state’s capabilities to advance in line with those of its enemies. For this reason, the planned cuts to police numbers in the forthcoming Spending Review must also be re-examined.
It was through an open border with Belgium that three of the attackers entered France. Even before the massacre in Paris, the Schengen Agreement, permitting passport-free movement across 26 European countries (the UK and Ireland are exempt), was unravelling under the strain of the refugee crisis. After the attacks, it appears even less sustainable, a relic of an age of innocence. Europe must change in order to remain the same without compromising its values.
The Syria crisis demands that the EU, the US and their allies forge a grand strategy equal to the boundless ambitions of Isis. Military, diplomatic, economic and cultural power must be harnessed against global jihadism. Resolve and fortitude will be required but so, too, will doubt and scepticism – the antitheses of the dogmatic certainties of the jihadists. It is in recognising what Isis seeks to destroy that we also recognise what we must defend.
This article appears in the 18 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror