The attacks in Paris have shone a light on the challenges faced by security and intelligence forces.
There will be considerable soul searching and finger pointing from commentators and politicians demanding action. Some will be calling for an end to accepting asylum seekers for fear of terrorist migrants infiltrating Europe. Others will be calling for a more robust military response with Western combat troops being deployed against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. We should support one but be very wary of the other.
It appears that at least two of the attackers had Syrian passports. Earlier this year an Islamic State operative boasted of smuggling fighters among the migrants flowing into Europe with suggestions of up to 4,000 fighters being sent.
This should not be a surprise. With a theology that prioritises life after death, one that seeks to hasten the end of times through the clash of Islam and “Rome”, it would be naïve to assume no Islamic State fighter has slipped into Europe with the intent of creating havoc. Yet many had in the past, clinging to a belief shaped by secular rational thinking.
Attacks on Western culture
Rather than targeting government institutions, these attacks struck at Western culture, a sports stadium, concert hall and nightspots (serving alcohol), all three banned past-times within the so-called Caliphate.
This targeting highlights the ideologically driven motivation, one that seeks to destroy Western culture rather than attack the state. In understanding these attacks and future threats, we need a more nuanced grasp of the Islamic theology that underpins Salafist groups such as IS and how their religious world view motivates these murderous actions.
That attacking civilians and Western culture is a primary objective will lead in the next few weeks to difficult conversations around the ongoing refugee crisis and how to respond to a policy that has opened the way for future attacks.
When the inevitable calls for closing the borders to migrants arise, the best response will be one that acknowledges the security threat, responds appropriately, but in addition prioritises greater funding and support to humanitarian organisations and refugee host nations in the Middle East.
Counterintuitively, opening European borders has weakened the chances of a sustained peace in Syria. According to UNHCR, 806,000 migrants have crossed into Europe this year, of which 52 per cent are Syrians fleeing conflict. For a country of 22 million this is a considerable portion of the middle-class — architects, doctors, accountants and administrators — who are unlikely to return home.
Why the middle class is missed
Without the middle class, any ceasefire is more fragile as the dividends of peace are few and far between when the promise of economic revitalisation falters. Without a robust middle class pushing for peace it is the gun-toting youth, those who missed their opportunity for an education, or the warlords with little experience in governance, that fill the lucrative government positions and in turn quickly spread corruption, incompetence and instability.
With only 45 per cent of the Syrian refugee needs funded this year, cuts to food rations and other humanitarian support has placed tremendous strain upon families living in camps and communities in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Fully funding these needs can restore hope and offer dignity to the people who have been stripped of both and were left with no choice but to flee to Europe.
The second inevitable call will be for a more robust military response to Islamic State. These suggestions must be roundly rejected. Islamic State is a theological movement that established a state, not a terrorist group that can be defeated militarily.
Conceptualising IS as a terrorist group would rightly lead to the further mobilisation of military hardware including boots on the ground, but as an ideological movement with a solid supporter base (although diminishing in some countries such as Jordan), the presence of Western troops could counterproductively strengthen its position.
The Coalition alliance against IS has to date rightly focused upon containing its geographical spread, weakening its military and economic infrastructure but leaving the frontline engagement to local forces in Iraq and Syria.
This strategy should continue as Islamic State will only be defeated when it withers from within. It can only be beaten when its attempts at managing a state in the twenty-first century based upon seventh-century principles falter, when its Islamist propaganda about the end of times is proven false and when its core constituency rises up from within against the militant ideology.
Sending Western troops into Syria, as the United States has done recently, only plays into the propaganda of a theological narrative that aspires to a final confrontation between Western armies and Islam.
A better understanding of the theological world view of Islamic State would help policy-makers understand the strategies adopted by Islamic State. Similarly, seeing Islamic State as a religio-political movement rather than a terrorist group will help to better shape Western policy towards the crisis in the Middle East.
Banner Image: Refugees arrive on Lesbos. Picture: Flickr