With France coming under fire again, it’s clear the West needs to come together and rethink its counter-terrorism moves before more people get hurt
The Bastille Day — a day celebrating the three tenets of the French Fifth Republic: ‘Liberté, Égalité Fraternité’. As the day passed, a familiar sight of carnage and destruction was presented on international news sources yet again. Once more, a lone wolf attack targeted civilians with the sole purpose to cause as many deaths as possible. Hashtags appear on social networks, critics start pointing out the fact that these tags appear only when an attack happens in Europe, ignoring blasts killing hundreds in the Middle East and elsewhere. A flurry of condolences from the governments of France’s principal allies is issued. François Hollande extends the state of emergency and puts 10,000 reservists on standby. Speeches are made, meetings are held and as the weeks pass and the dust starts to settle, there seems to be little change strategically and tactically in the fight against international terrorism.
While we are being barraged by government officials claiming how successful their fight against Daesh is, citing the percentage of territorial losses, there is little talk about responding to the threat of radicalisation and operations done outside of Daesh’s territorial holdings. It is no doubt a victory that Fallujah has been reclaimed by Iraqi government forces, or that the Kurds are mounting a successful offensive against Daesh in the north of Iraq and Syria, but it would be ignorant to believe that victories in Iraq and Syria will increase the security of Europe and shield it against further attacks like the one in Nice. Indeed, the French Government must be working around the clock at the moment, attempting to resolve the problem of home-grown terrorism in France. However, the 10,000 reservists called on standby will only be able to have an effect when another attack will be in progress. Perhaps, if there were more troops and police officers in Nice on that day, they would have been able to kill the driver of the lorry before he was able to plough through so many civilians.
But what can be done to prevent a similar attack from taking place?
As seen during the Belgian attacks, failures in intelligence gathering led to security forces being caught at a surprise. Indeed, according to an Israeli minister responding to the Belgian attacks in March, European intelligence agencies (with the exception of France’s DGSI and British MI5) are deemed to be ineffective and weak. Furthermore, there have been critics of the European agencies’ lack of sharing information quickly and efficiently — presenting another problem that can prove fatal in preventing a future terrorist attack. To this effect, a united intelligence gathering agency, composed of officers from the EU member states and under the jurisdiction of the EU itself might completely eradicate the above problems.
Despite political resistance towards further European integration (expressed chiefly by the British vote to leave the European Union), this step would be a pragmatic one. With the Schengen zone being upheld in the EU, it is difficult for national intelligence agencies to track jihadist movements and it is certainly counterproductive for these agencies to focus solely on their own countries. This move would not mean that the EU would be able to ‘spy’ on its member states, or that a French intelligence officer would be tracking my dubious browser history, but it might just be the edge that security forces need to be able to do their jobs properly and protect citizens.
While it is true that there has been progress done through the current coalition airstrikes — local ground troops model of waging war against Daesh — a large portion of Iraq and Syria are still under terrorist control, with Daesh instilling terror wherever they reign. It is also understandable why world leaders are reluctant to send in international ground troops as they have done in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Both of these conflicts were plagued by a long period of insurgency against the international troops and both of these conflicts seem endless. However, both in Iraq and in Afghanistan, the war was initially waged against relatively stable governments, leading to their destabilisation as a result of intervention.
However, the conflict unfolding in Iraq and Syria is now fought against a non-state actor, who attempts to create the institutions of states to justify its existence. Daesh lacks the organisation, morale, discipline or technology of modern Western militaries and while its campaign of terrorism against civilians can be daunting for the average Joe, if it faced a campaign by Western ground forces, its hold in Iraq and Syria would crumble rather swiftly.
The current strategy relies heavily on numerous local ground forces, paramilitaries and tribesmen, who fight not only Daesh, but also themselves, as they have a varied agenda. The reliance on local troops creates problems of accountability, as numerous war crimes are committed by both sides. Shia paramilitaries backed by Iran merely wish to fight Sunnites, while what President Obama calls ‘moderate Sunni rebels’ are actually a group backed by and consisting of Al-Nusra Front fighters, who are part of Al Qaeda.
Though relying on local ground troops might work in the strategy to destroy Daesh and reclaim territory, it has a dangerous destabilising effect on the rest of the civil war, which in itself is the breeding ground of jihadists who will commit attacks on the West. A debate about the possibility of NATO ground troops in Iraq and Syria needs to be seriously discussed. There will be critics who will point out Afghanistan and indeed Iraq interventions, perhaps even arguing that ground intervention would only encourage terrorist attacks on the West. However, at this point, it seems that these attacks come regardless of whether the West intervenes or not, as one of the main recruitment points of Daesh fighters is the armed struggle against the ‘decadent’ Western countries. Without the theme of an armed struggle against the West, Daesh lacks an ideological doctrine that would sustain its rates of recruitment and indeed, its existence.
Countries such as the United Kingdom can serve as a great example of community policing and effective counter-terrorism policies. With the UK Government reportedly stopping seven terrorist attacks in a time frame of six months, other European countries should take note of these counter-terrorism policies.
The problem of home-grown terrorism is rampant across Europe at the moment and it is important that it is addressed politically. While it is simply impossible to be able to track every homebred jihadist and stop him from committing an attack like the one in Nice, it is important to realise that in many countries, such as France and Belgium, access to firearms is much freer than in the United Kingdom. For the UK, its success in foiling terrorist attacks does not only lie in the effectiveness of its security and intelligence gathering forces, but also because of its progressive gun laws, community-oriented policing and anti-extremism policies.
While it is not possible to say with certainty whether any of these policies would be capable of stopping (or at least reducing) terrorist attacks in Europe, it is becoming clear that the current strategy is lacking. Boosting police and military forces’ presence in major cities may provide a feeling of safety amongst citizens, but it does nothing however to address prevention. Therefore, let us not attempt to stick with a strategy that is not working, but rethink our approach to this problem and open a constructive discussion.