Paris Attacks: ISIS Is Not an Existential Threat

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The Washington Square Park arch in New York City is lit up to honor the 129 people killed in a series of attacks in Paris on Friday. Polly Mosendz/Newsweek

The attacks in Paris on Friday did not only lead to the tragic deaths of civilians, but also signified the end of terrorism as we know it. While jihadi groups have attacked non-military targets in Europe again and again, this is the first time that random civilians were killed in an unprecedented series of assaults. The 2002 Chechen-led Dubrovka Theater hostage crisis in Moscow could have been classified as the first such incident, if most of the hostages were not actually killed by Russian gas poisoning. To a certain extent, the Paris massacre resembles more the school shootings in the United States than any terrorist attack we have seen before.

Many analysts and policymakers will certainly interpret the events as an indication of ISIS's transformation into a global organization capable of spreading terror outside its home base. Indeed, the precedent of Al-Qaeda can be used to describe the new trajectory of ISIS. But this is not the first time that ISIS was involved in a terrorist attack that took place in a distant country. Last June, an ISIS-affiliated gunman killed 39 people, mostly Westerners, on a Tunisian beach. As opposed to Al-Qaeda, ISIS has focused on the establishment of a Sunni state in the Middle East. The new jihad is a more narrowly defined project; it is a territorial, not post-territorial, quest that can only be achieved by a localized force of determined and highly motivated jihadis.

In reality, the Friday attacks are a sign of ISIS's weakness and desperation. They indicate its inability to hit "hard" targets that are usually well-protected. Although the shootings and suicide bombings were well-organized, they took place at a time of increased military pressure on the group. The anti-ISIS coalition now includes four of the world's nuclear powers (the United States, Russia, France and the United Kingdom) plus Turkey and Iran, two powerful Middle Eastern countries. The group has lost territory and is bound to lose more. This is a factor that prompts ISIS's leadership to expand its activities following the doctrine "the best defense is offense."

It is true that ISIS, which partly consists of educated Western recruits, views civilians as Europe's Clausewitzian center of gravity. The 2004 Madrid bombings illustrated that public opinion can play a very important role in foreign policy decision-making. Following the death of almost 200 civilians, the Spanish government decided to withdraw its troops from Iraq. It was an unexpected victory for Al-Qaeda and a lesson to be learned for its successor groups like ISIS. But does the self-declared Caliphate really believe that a great power like France will follow suit and will end its involvement in the Middle East? The ISIS leadership knows very well that French society showed remarkable resilience and unity in other similar circumstances (for example, Algerian attacks during the 1990s).

What is then the strategic goal behind this appalling action if not to change the course of France's Middle East policy? The Paris attacks were for domestic consumption more than anything else. They were meant to solidify support inside the ISIS-controlled areas because the group can't win the war (for example, recapture the town of Sinjar, which it has just been driven out of). The ISIS leadership is now thinking politically rather than militarily. Like every insurgent group, ISIS hopes to maintain the active or passive support of the population. By launching a series of attacks in Paris, it wants to demonstrate its long-range capability to "punish" Westerners for the purpose of feeding its propaganda machine and gaining more supporters. In essence, it is a strategy of global action for local survival. The Irish Republican Army almost adopted a similar glocal strategy in the 1980s when it killed British military personnel and civilians in continental Europe.

Despite the atrocious killing of Parisians, European governments ought to remember that ISIS is not an existential threat. Unlike the USSR during the Cold War, ISIS cannot defeat Western democracies militarily. Yet, it can score a political victory against Europeans that could undermine liberal values such as tolerance and equal treatment for all.

Like Al-Qaeda before it, ISIS hopes to force European governments into actions that would fuel a new cycle of violence between the West and the Muslim world. If the post-9/11 U.S. response can teach us something, it will be the importance of proportionality. The French government and its European partners should punish the assailants within the criminal justice framework. For sure, some politicians will call for a greater military role in the Middle East. Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe that this would stop new attacks from happening. The French/European response should include more than just military and police measures. And that is a new policy of inclusion for those who are marginalized and constitute the potential recruitment base of groups like ISIS. Only then the evil of jihadism will be defeated.

Emmanuel Karagiannis is a senior lecturer at King's College London's Department of Defence Studies (http://www.kcl.ac.uk/sspp/departments/dsd/index.aspx) and a research affiliate of the University of Maryland's National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (http://www.start.umd.edu/).