Barbarism in Paris

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Call it l’année de la terreur. The coordinated ISIS assault on Paris November 13 marks a grisly continuation of the terror campaign that the French republic has endured this year. This campaign began in earnest in January with joint attacks on the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery store that killed 17 people. In August, a planned terror attack on a train from Amsterdam to Paris was prevented when unarmed passengers (including three Americans)  bravely charged at the heavily armed attacker and subdued him before the shooting spree could begin.  

This time France was not so fortunate and a massacre unfolded on the streets of Paris. The plan of attack was as sophisticated in its precision as it was lethal in effect. In its diffuse nature - six nearly simultaneous shootings and bombings and hostage-takings across the city - it has been compared to the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India. The number of casualties was staggering;129 dead and more than 350 wounded, ranking it as the largest terrorist attack in the West since the March 2004 Madrid bombings.

The immediate government response was to declare a state of emergency, reinforce the nation's borders and deploy armored military units throughout the capital. A curfew was imposed for the first time since Paris was under German occupation. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that the City of Light was effectively, albeit briefly, under martial law. President Francois Hollande has proposed extending France’s emergency domestic security posture for three months.

Such extreme defensive measures are important in the short term in order to restore a sense of calm and control to a French citizenry reeling from shock and a sense of vulnerability. In the longer term, a robust response to the “root causes” of jihadist violence is long overdue. To be credible, any strategy must include at least two components: military force and ideological pressure. 

The French president has declared the random slaughter in Paris to be "an act of war," which it plainly is. Mr. Hollande also vowed to be “unforgiving with the barbarians,” as he ordered retaliatory airstrikes on ISIS’s de facto capital, Raqqa, Syria. Reportedly, at least six of the eight Paris attackers trained in Syria, including the alleged "mastermind," Belgian Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who was killed in a November 18 police raid. 

Increased bombing raids, especially belatedly targeting assets like oil production that directly harm ISIS’s bottom line, are important. However, more than a year of mostly American airstrikes has barely managed to “contain” ISIS in its strategic heartland – let alone to diminish its global reach. The restrictive rules of engagement that have marked the anti-ISIS campaign, including the near-total prohibition on ground troops (even as tactical air controllers), must be reconsidered if ISIS is to be decisively deprived of its safe havens and the ability plot attacks and generate income.

President Hollande, in an address before the country’s Senate and National Assembly, outlined a series of potential measures to combat terror, including the ability to quickly expel foreigners and strip dual-nationals of their French nationality, which may require changing the French constitution.  He also proposed expanding executive powers without having to prolong the state of emergency indefinitely.

The other necessity is to prosecute the battle of ideas against militant Islamists, which is not only the job of governments. Political leaders should not be reluctant to identify the problem by its proper name. They should seriously engage civil society both in the West and in Muslim-majority countries and strengthen Muslim voices being raised, often with little support and at great personal risk, to resist the forces of medievalism in their own communities. For a proper “counter narrative” to take hold, the entrenched forces spreading intolerance and inciting violence on social media platforms must be challenged.

The murderous assault on November 13 in Paris reminds us that the essential precondition of liberté – to say nothing of égalité or fraternité – is sécurité. The Paris horrors should finally galvanize the world community around a strategy that can defeat ISIS both militarily and ideologically. Paris should not become the new normal, it should be the beginning of the end of ISIS.