BEEFED-UP security must be the main focus of the West’s response and that should go hand-in-hand with more military action in Syria
If ever a terrorist attack was designed to strike fear into the heart of the people of Europe, the barbaric assault on the centre of Paris last Friday evening was just such an exercise. The seeming randomness of the slaughter, with restaurants, a rock concert and the national sports stadium as targets, guaranteed international impact – and universal revulsion.
The modus operandi of IS is the spreading of fear. Here it has murderously succeeded. The targets were places just like the ones we and our families go to for recreation and pleasure, with barely a thought given to danger or risk to life. The reaction of millions around the world to the scenes of carnage captured in newspapers and on television screens over the weekend was as unanimous as it was deeply chilling: this could have been us, any one of us, on any evening, in any city: Paris, London, Glasgow or Edinburgh.
But the horrible desire to spread fear among millions was only one of the results the murderous plotters wanted to achieve. These were appalling outrages callously designed to also provoke a reaction from the governments of the states whose citizens are at risk – in the hope this in turn will recruit more to the IS cause and feed even more fear and division.
We thus need to be careful about how we react. But react we must. In the immediate aftermath of the Paris atrocities, it is understandable that senior French officials are describing this as their 9/11 moment. But it is widely accepted that the response of the US and the West to the attacks on the Twin Towers created more problems that it sought to resolve. The response to Paris – domestic and international – needs to be more considered.
That response has to take several forms and unfold on several fronts. Arguably the most pressing front is security. This means, in addition to further steps to improve intelligence, closer scrutiny at public buildings and events as well as at borders and airports.
Confusion has understandably dominated the immediate aftermath. But over the coming days and weeks many searching questions will be asked as to how France’s intelligence apparatus missed the movements of at least three terrorist groups and why previous suspects were not more carefully monitored.
As for border controls, European leaders will be reluctant to abandon the principle of Schengen – already buckling under the pressure this year of almost a million migrants from the Middle East and north Africa. But while rhetorical commitment may remain in place, the reality is that the cross-border movement of peoples and goods can and must now be subject to more rigorous checks. This does not mean that we cannot take in refugees from Syria who have been uprooted from their homes and are in desperate need of help and protection. But there needs to be more careful consideration to ensure effective provision of help and relief. As Germany is now finding out, there are practical limits to the organisation and resources that host countries can offer. Real assistance requires forethought and planning to ensure that communities can cope. The discovery of a Syrian passport in the Paris wreckage, which had been used to get in to Greece and Macedonia, would seem to offer evidence that jihadists are indeed posing as refugees to get in to Europe with a view to attacking its citizens.
Without organisation and practical provision, Europe will find itself breeding similar forms of desperation and extremism – both among the refugees and the host population. This does not mean a closing of borders or a closing of hearts, but a tightening up of scrutiny to better protect against those who want to harm us.
A further requirement is to make it extremely difficult both to carry arms and equipment across borders and to move such equipment within individual states. Here again, surveillance has to be stepped up, both over electronic communications and the buying of ingredients that can create explosions. All this inevitably means more time-consuming scrutiny at airports and border points and inevitably some loss of freedom of movement and independence. But that is the price we will have to pay to make our cities less vulnerable to terrorist atrocity.
The proximate source of the problem is Syria. Here, military action must be stepped up. The approach till now of containment and incremental action has proved insufficient. IS must be uprooted. We must go into further action in Syria in the knowledge it will not end the threat to our cities from Islamist terrorists; in fact, more military action will inevitably increase the risk of further attacks on European capitals. But that is a risk that has to be taken given the nature of the threat it poses to our culture, our values, our freedoms and our way of life.
That risk can be mitigated in several ways. The first is to ensure that all and any action in the field is undertaken by a multinational force and that it is carefully targeted and measured. Another is to ensure that the action taken cannot be seen as an attack on Islam itself or any one faction of Islam but on those who have resorted to terrorism and slaughter to enforce their beliefs. With every new atrocity, the actions of IS confirm it is not a religious organisation but a death cult – one whose fanatical adherents celebrate the loss of life for its own sake.
The cost to all of us will be felt in a loss of freedom. But this was not a fight of our choice, and we have only one choice in what now lies ahead – to take what practical, effective action we can, or risk losing that greatest freedom of all: the right to as safe and secure a life as we have fought to protect in previous conflicts and with great sacrifice.