There Will Be Blood: Paris and the Future of Islamist Terrorism

Paris Mourning
Two women take part in a vigil to pay tribute to the victims of the Paris attacks, at Trafalgar Square in London, Britain November 14, 2015. Reuters

For 14 years, Western intelligence officials have lived in fear of this moment. With Friday’s attack on Paris, the world has passed a tipping point in what is sure to be a decades-long battle against Islamist terrorism. And, to combat it, America and its allies — from government leaders to citizens — have to move past the fear and partisan politics of the last decade. They have to realize that Friday’s Paris strike is not just another in a growing cavalcade of terrorist assaults; instead it signals a tactical change in Islamist terrorist strategies—one that militants have been moving towards for years.

One of the biggest limitations on Islamist terrorist groups executing successful attacks has been competition. Al-Qaeda is not ISIS, ISIS is not the Haqqani network, Haqqani is not Hamas. Each is vying to recruit among the same potential supporters, and Western intelligence agencies say these groups once believed that grandiose, complicated plots such as blowing up major bridges or national landmarks would win them more members. But the more intricate the plots and the more predictable the targets, the more likely it is that Western intel officials can thwart them.

Not anymore. The Paris attacks show that global jihadists have realized what counterterrorism specialists have long feared: strikes on soft targets such as restaurants, concerts and sports venues—using small arms and easy-to-assemble bombs—are harder to stop and can inflict massive damage.

An American intelligence officer first discussed this with me in 2007, laying out a scenario for an attack that was frighteningly similar to what occurred in Paris. This individual described the intelligence agency’s concerns while making a broader point about the use of resources on the condition that I wouldn’t write about these concerns and inadvertently pass on the idea to Islamists. With the Paris attack, that individual, now retired, released me from that promise, saying that the world needs to understand how Paris has changed everything, and what that means for how politicians, strategists and citizens of Western countries should respond.

The first signal that terrorists might have been shifting tactics to wide-scale soft-target attacks came in 2008, when 10 members of Lashkar-e-Taiba — a Pakistan-based Islamist group — engaged in a series of shooting and bombing attacks in Mumbai. Over a period of four days they struck hotels, a railway station, taxis and other unprotected targets. Western intelligence braced for the strategy to expand, and successfully disrupted several planned strikes. But then, the attempts dwindled.

The next major sign that raised concerns: the January attack on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly newspaper that often lampooned Islam. Two gunmen, who identified themselves as belonging to a group called Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, raided the offices and killed 12 people. The attack sparked a massive global reaction, far more than the response to the Mumbai assault, with marches and public commitments to stand up to terrorists. On the other side, however, some condemned the editors of Charlie Hebdo for insulting Muslims —as if there was some sort of equivalence between murder and drawing a cartoon.

Classified analysis by a foreign intelligence agency that one overseas official discussed with me concluded that the Charlie Hebdo attack, despite its relatively small size, might serve as both a lesson and a challenge to other terrorist groups. With ISIS attempting to grab global headlines, the success of the Al-Qaeda affiliate may have given it more allure to potential recruits; it demonstrated the group’s affiliates knew how to carry out the type of high-profile assault that ISIS had yet to execute. In this analysis, Paris and Berlin were deemed the most in danger of small-arms terrorist assaults. A least two years would have to pass, the foreign intelligence analysts concluded, before the West could feel somewhat assured that ISIS had not learned the tactical lesson from the Charlie Hebdo assault by striking soft-targets with hard-to-detect, small weaponry. Doing so would inflict wide-scale damage and show the Islamist world that ISIS could outdo Al-Qaeda.

Now that it has happened, the West has to learn new ways to think about terrorism.  Intelligence agencies have long said that, once the change of tactics succeeded somewhere in the West, America and its allies would be hit. “This isn’t a question of if,’’ the retired American intelligence official told me. “It’s a question of when.” It is too easy to carry out one of these small-arms attacks and the impact is too enormous.

What then should be done? The first step is simple, and one that the CIA and other agencies have been clamoring for in secret sessions before Congressional intelligence committees: Stop politicizing terrorist attacks. If you listen to members of the intelligence committees discuss terrorism, you might notice it is sometimes impossible to tell the difference between Republicans and Democrats. They often speak in a single voice, because they have been told that those who use terrorist attacks to drive anger against the opposing political party are encouraging small-scale assaults.

That has been, for example, the problem with the vast politicization of the 2012 attack on the American mission in Benghazi. As one intelligence official told me last year, Islamists follow news about American reactions to terrorist attacks very closely. They are fully aware that this comparatively small strike has been used by American politicians in attempts to effect the outcome of the next election. Despite the fact that many reports have assessed the attack from every angle, the bogus investigations and hysterical screams of politics continue.

Some of the reactions to the Paris attack has been more of the same. Even as people continued to be executed, conservative commentators rushed to social media to attack Obama, protesting students at the University of Missouri, gun control advocates and immigration policies. It was a parade of inhuman obscenities led by pundits like Ann Coulter, Monica Crowley, Newt Gingrich, Michelle Malkin. Some criticized Obama for refusing to blame Islamists before the intelligence was confirmed, or calling the president a “whitewasher-in-chief” who had nothing to contribute.

This instantaneous reaction attacking the American government came because terrorists struck another country. Our tribal division between liberals and conservatives — while not violent — has become nearly as irrational and self-destructive as the one between the Sunnis and the Shiites. Imagine what will happen when the attack takes place in the United States. The outrage and attacks on the White House will come from whatever party isn’t in power. The terrorists will successfully turn us against each other, rather than uniting us against the people who want to destroy us.

So, what is to be done? Americans need to move beyond their internecine squabbles. Did President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq help create ISIS and fuel the growth of Islamist terrorism? Yes. Was Hillary Clinton’s Libya strategy a blunder? Yes. Have Obama’s Syria policies been incoherent? Yes. Was Bush’s agreement in 2008 to withdraw from Iraq in 2011 difficult-to-avoid mistake? Yes.

Okay, it’s all been said. Now, let’s face where we are now. Conservatives need to stop screaming about Obama when it comes to national security, and liberals need to stop spinning conspiracy theories about war or ranting over Bush’s past mistakes. The National Security Agency’s domestic spying program — the one created by Bush and supported by Obama — needs to be enhanced; citizens need to understand that the government doesn’t want to know what porn sites you’ve subscribed to, they want to be able to disrupt attacks, including small-scale ones.

American politicians need to stop pretending this is a simple problem. ISIS is not going to run away when faced with the steely-eyed gaze of some soft politician. Nor will they be killed. ISIS spreads a philosophy; it can only be contained and disrupted. But idiotic statements like “bomb them” — which the United States is already doing on the battle lines — appear to be designed to trick Americans into believing that ISIS is in a single location, away from civilian populations, waiting to be hit. Americans cannot face the reality of this challenge if politicians do not tell the truth.

We also need to grow more sophisticated about Western Muslims. Are they violent enemies, ready to attack at any time? No. They are our neighbors and fellow citizens. But are small groups of Muslims hiding in plain sight and eager and prepared to kill? Yes. When it comes to security, let’s stop pretending that a 68-year-old grandmother is as much a potential threat as a 25-year-old Muslim male. This is not bias or racism; it’s fact. If middle aged white guys were more likely to engage in mass, organized terrorist attacks than other citizens, I not only would expect to receive closer attention, I would want it. After all, terrorists are just as likely to kill their own. What this means is some sort of security profiling cannot be avoided. However, we have to recognize and accept that law-abiding Muslims — who make up the vast, vast majority of American practitioners of Islam — are as much victims as anyone else. Laws need to protect them and demagogues need to leave them alone.

Next, it’s time for to hold our supposed allies accountable. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have been allowed to engage in their dalliances with terrorist groups for far too long. The Saudis provide money to the Sunni extremists like ISIS, while Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) provides extremist groups with protection. The Taliban was an ISI creation; Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group behind the Mumbai attacks, is still supported by these government officials. America needs to confront these governments with diplomatic and financial force. The Saudi royal family needs to be told that if they are unable to control the flow of cash to those terrorists set on harming America, there will be severe consequences to pay. For example — even though it is exactly what the Sunni terrorists want — the U.S. could withdraw its military troops from Saudi Arabia and adopt a strategic tilt toward Iran, whose Shiite government is aligned with America in the interest of destroying ISIS.

The American government also has to understand that we have no real allies in the Middle East—there are only those that are willing to work with us. If that means aligning ourselves with our erstwhile enemies, like Iran, in the face of this Sunni threat, so be it. It also means we may have to pressure Israel. The government of Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear that it cares little about the ISIS threat in Syria, since the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, has allowed his regime to become a conduit of weapons from Iran to the Shiite terror group Hezbollah, one of Israel’s greatest enemies. The Netanyahu government’s attitude toward ISIS is foolish. If the group manages to seize control in Syria, it will only be a matter of time before the unfolding chaos in the Middle East spreads to the Israeli border.

The industrialized powers also must unify under a single strategy, including a military one. The Western nations must join with Russia under the authority of the United Nations to engage ISIS. The Kurds — and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard — have won major victories in Iraq with the assistance of American bombing campaigns. If stabilizing Syria ultimately requires the West to prop up Assad — a bloodthirsty madman who is a threat to Israel — so be it. There are no good choices here; that is why finding answers has been so difficult. The only way to try and put the Middle East back together is by taking on one issue at a time. ISIS and the other Islamist militant groups come first.

Finally, Western citizens must stop cowering. Perhaps the most important moment in France came hours after the attack, when Parisians came outside with signs proclaiming “We are not afraid.” The terrorists want us to be scared. That is how they win.

The truth is, any individual is more likely to die in a car crash while driving home from a movie theater than to be killed by an explosion while the film is running. A relatively small number of us will die at the hands of terrorists, no matter what we do; this is an undeniable fact. So be it. . When bombs were raining down on London during World War II, its citizens went about their business. Today, there are no bombs falling in the West; the threat we face does not come close to compared to what the British confronted.

So, go about your business. Put the threat of these attacks in perspective. Do not let the terrorists win. Be like those brave people in Paris who, even as dead bodies lay littered the ground, confronted terrorists with the message that, while they may have killed some of their fellow citizens,  they hadn’t put a dent in the nation’s spirit.