Ambassador Bellamy on the Paris Attacks

November 16, 2015

Insight from the Warburg Professor of International Relations

Once again we are confronted with the horror of a terrorist massacre of innocents, this time in the streets of Paris. Once again our world is upended. Once again, we ask ourselves: where is the international order that is supposed to prevent or limit such outrages? The massacre itself is bad enough. The fear that our fractured world will see more of them — the Islamic State (ISIS) warns this is only “the first of the storm” — is perhaps even worse.

We will soon learn more about the killers, about their mentors and handlers, and their separate paths to martyrdom. For now, however, five points are worth keeping mind. 

First, for all the talk about the professionalism of these attacks, they were in fact fairly rudimentary. Three suicide bombers appear to have failed completely, blowing themselves up to little effect. The Paris shooters did not, as do real soldiers, confront armed foes and seek to prevail and escape with their lives. They were simply on one-way suicide missions to kill unsuspecting civilians. Such missions require little training beyond the basic operation of an AK-47 or the throwing of a hand grenade. This, of course, is of little comfort. It suggests how little it takes to defeat even the most sophisticated anti-terrorist defenses.

Second, the Paris attack does not mark a “new” ISIS strategy. For months ISIS has been calling on all true believers to kill the enemies of Islam wherever they exist. Lone wolves have answered that call in some countries. Though they likely communicated with ISIS in Syria before the assault and mounted a bigger, better coordinated operation than anything seen before, the Paris attackers were simply carrying out long-standing ISIS commands. ISIS insists true Muslims everywhere have a sacred duty to follow the example of these jihadists. While most Muslims do not accept this fervent theological line, enough have done so to provide the Islamic State with an army of robotized killers seeking a ticket to paradise.

What is “new” is that ISIS has been blocked on the ground in Iraq and Syria (as President Obama claimed in unfortunately mistimed statement last week). ISIS is under pressure and losing territory. But this is when terrorist movements typically shift their focus. Attacks well beyond ISIS’s claimed territorial Caliphate become a way of diverting attention from the local setbacks and demonstrating the movement’s resilience.

Third, while stepped up Western strikes against the Caliphate are inevitable, this should not divert us from putting the main onus of responsibility where it belongs, which is on neighboring Arab states that have a even bigger stake in this war than we do. There is no doubt that ISIS receives at least some support from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and other predominately Sunni communities in the region. The reasons for this are complex and have much to do with these states trying to buy off Islamist extremists forces they fear they cannot control. We must now demand that any and all forms of such support cease. Moreover, these states must be made to commit more to the military effort on the ground against ISIS. Their own security demands it. 

Fourth, refugee flows are not the problem. ISIS doesn’t need to send lone wolves on leaky rafts across the Mediterranean, from there to walk hundreds of miles to their supposed targets. Some jihadists may end up doing this, but many are already in place in Paris, Brussels and London. Anti-migration prejudices were burgeoning in Europe before the latest attacks. Ratcheting up the rhetoric and inflicting greater levels of hardship on these refugees now, as many politicians will propose, is useless as a counter-terrorist strategy. This truth may not sit well with frightened publics and opportunistic politicians, but it should be underscored at every opportunity.

Finally, we can expect to hear much nonsense on all of this during our electoral campaign in the U.S. over the next year. Presidents don’t get elected because they are restrained and thoughtful. They get elected by exhibiting “toughness” no matter how uninformed and unrealistic their “positions” may be. It is better to ignore the bombast and focus instead on the reality that the global threat posed by ISIS will not be resolved quickly by conventional military action. And we can be reassured by this: ISIS will certainly burn itself out at some point, as all extreme Islamist revivalist movements have done in the past. Our task it to be relentless and creative in bringing about that meltdown, using not only military but also all the diplomatic, financial, economic and propaganda tools at our disposal.

Ambassador (ret) William M. Bellamy
Warburg Professor of International Relations