Twelve years ago I was in Iraq, having been posted to Baghdad straight after the invasion. I was working for Prime Minister, Tony Blair as his Crisis Manager and dealt with both domestic and overseas situations; covering a vast range of communications issues.
It was still a hostile environment, and during my daily life I became very adept at distinguishing the different sounds of weaponry and military equipment. Knowing when celebratory fire erupted, or when a Rocket Propelled Grenade exploded; and being able to judge the distance of those incessant sounds. This was the backdrop to my life there and although it became the norm I was always mindful of the risks.
However, we do not expect the same thing to happen during peacetime in European cities and that is why the attack in Paris, whilst people were enjoying the start of the weekend, was so shocking.
But was it surprising? Having spent the last decade working at the Foreign Office I would say that these sort of attacks are inevitable. The Charlie Hebdo attack earlier this year was seen by some security analysts as an indicator of things to come. Though the scale and brutality of the Paris attacks were truly appalling. The open borders that the French enjoy allow easy transport of powerful automatic weapons; the type that were used in the attack. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) quickly claimed responsibility, and President Hollande’s rapid response was to undertake further wave of bombing in Syria five days later.
The on-going Syria conflict has created a huge problem for the West. The Northern Syrian city of Raqqa is ISIL’s base and they have attracted a huge number of foreign fighters from around the globe to their vile terrorist group. Unlike Iraq during war, Syria is relatively accessible and wannabe jihadists have been able to travel both in and out of the region. At the beginning of the conflict Western security agencies quickly identified ‘returnees’ as a major problem and the danger of people who may have fought in Syria coming back to Western countries both radicalised and motivated enough to attack on their home soil.
Although France was the target, it is worth remembering that nearly 20 countries were affected by the massacre in Paris; reflecting the cosmopolitan nature of a thriving city. World leaders and people have globally mourned with France and expressed their outrage. President Hollande has intensified his bombing campaign and is looking for allies to help in the ‘war’ he has declared against ISIL.
The UK is yet to decide what action it will take, but the UN Security Council Resolution agreed last week called on member states to take ‘all necessary measures’ to challenge ISIL. Here in the UK, Prime Minister Cameron has made the case in Parliament for the UKto join Syrian airstrikes. It will eventually come down to a vote that he has to win or we hand a propaganda victory to ISIL. The date for the vote is yet to be set, but he will have a difficult time ahead. The Labour Party have still to confirm whether they will allow their members a free vote, though the leader of the Opposition publicly opposes military action.
Military action is one of the most important decisions any Government can take and in modern times is almost always controversial. What would this action actually look like? The UK is already involved in a bombing campaign in Iraq, targeting ISIL strongholds there. And we are supporting a US-led Coalition bombing ISIL targets in Syria. To simplify the thinking: the plan to increase and intensify the military campaign would prevent ISIL from gaining more territory, and whilst they are busy avoiding bombs they would be unable to plan attacks.
While we focus on Syria, it is worth remembering that ISIL is only one of many terrorist groups around the world. Similar Islamist groups are active in other parts of the Middle East; Africa; South East Asia and beyond. These groups want to create fear and stoke up religious hatred in flourishing cities. Countries that rely on tourism are easy targets; but all countries are finding that they need to increase their security. Europe will always be high on the list for terrorists who want to challenge our freedoms and democracies.
In the wake of Paris several things have happened: Tunis has been attacked again; the US has issued a worldwide travel alert for Americans and Brussels was literally in lock down for four-days. Alongside this, there has been a rise in the number of hate crimes against Muslims. The whole of Europe is on high alert and populations around the world are scared. But does this mean that ISIL are achieving their goals?
The Arabic name for ISIL is Da’esh, which is a play on words and also regarded as an insult, and why the group prefers to be called IS (Islamic State). They want disharmony between Muslims and other religions and people. They hope this will draw disaffected Muslims tired of being abused and harassed to join them.
ISIL like most terrorist groups have their weaknesses and security services around the globe will be looking tactically at what they can do to diminish them. It will take time, but they will be beaten. However, experience shows there will be another group to take their place. But each time they learn, so do we. We need to stay one step ahead and use all the legitimate means available to us to fight them.
We also need to look at the root causes and the reasons why people are attracted to such violent jihadism, particularly those born and raised in the West. We need to support those moderate Muslim voices and help them find a place for their views. Seek out those who want to adapt their religion to the culture of their adopted country. This is the time for greater harmony and understanding. The alternative is just too ghastly.
When Margaret Thatcher’s Government was attacked during the Party Conference in Brighton by the IRA in 1984 they issued a statement saying “Today we [IRA] were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.” That still holds today for terrorists, but so does Margaret Thatcher’s response:
“All attempts to defeat democracy by terrorism will fail”.