The Daily Star
Monday, November 16 2015
By Michael Glackin
Shortly after a combined British and American intelligence operation killed Mohammed Emwazi – the infamous “Jihadi John” – U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron stood outside Downing Street and issued a stark warning to ISIS: “We have a long reach, we have unwavering determination, and we never forget about our citizens.”
A few hours later in Paris, ISIS, or more accurately yet another of its numerous offshoots, issued its own more deadly warning: that it too has the capability to reach far beyond its self proclaimed caliphate and bring its terror and barbarism directly to the West’s doorstep.
Friday night’s attack on Paris, in which 129 people were killed, comes hard on the heels of an ISIS affiliate blowing a Russian airliner out of the sky over Sinai, killing 224 people, and just two days after the group bombed Beirut, killing 43.
These atrocities are a stark reminder that liquidating “Jihadi John,” or even destroying ISIS in Iraq and Syria, will not extinguish the group’s ability to terrorize and kill, in the West or elsewhere, anymore than driving Al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan stopped its affiliates carrying out murder across the globe.
Lest we forget, Al-Qaeda offshoots were behind the Madrid bombings in 2004 which killed 191 people, and the London bombings in 2007 in which 52 died. In 2008 the Al-Qaeda-linked Lashkar-e-Talibi killed 164 people in Mumbai.
The Paris attack was meticulously organized and, though claimed by ISIS, is likely to have been planned inside France rather than in Raqqa or Mosul. ISIS has a ready pool of volunteers, born and living within France, ready to murder on its behalf. Indeed, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, when brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi killed 11 people, and another four died at the hands of Amedy Coulibaly, French President Francois Hollande warned it was just a matter of time before home-grown militants carried out another atrocity.
The attack comes at the same time as ISIS has suffered a number of setbacks in its own backyard, most notably the recapture of Sinjar in northern Iraq by the Kurdish peshmerga. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is thought to have been seriously injured in an airstrike in Iraq last month. Then there is Emwazi’s largely symbolic killing, which intelligence sources have linked to the Paris attack.
Raffaello Pantucci, director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute, said: “This was planned long before Jihadi John’s death but it’s possible that they thought this was a good trigger.”
France’s conduct toward Islamic terrorism has been far more proactive than its European allies. Hollande has been an active interventionist in Africa, battling Islamist militants across the Sahel region. Unlike the U.K., France has joined U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIS within Syria, albeit on a limited scale.
ISIS’ claim of responsibility for the Paris attacks specifically mentioned French air attacks “striking Muslims in the lands of the caliphate.” The terrorists that attacked the Bataclan concert hall shouted “This is for Syria” as they emptied their machine guns on the crowd.
The French president’s pledge of “pitiless” vengeance toward ISIS in response to the atrocity is likely to be more than just hyperbole. Unlike the Spanish government in 2004, which withdrew its troops from Iraq following the Madrid train bombings, France will almost certainly step up its attacks on Islamic extremists, both abroad and at home.
In the U.K., Cameron will seek to use the Paris attack to win parliamentary support for what would be largely token U.K. airstrikes against ISIS in Syria. But unless he can get Russian President Vladimir Putin to agree a political process to replace President Bashar Assad, he is unlikely to succeed.
Putin and Cameron are scheduled to discuss Syria Monday at the G-20 summit in Turkey. But last weekend’s Syrian talks in Vienna, aimed at ending a war in which a larger number than those killed last week in Paris are being murdered on a daily basis, further exposed that Russia, Iran and the West cannot agree on who exactly qualifies as a terrorist.
However, the real impact of last Friday’s events is likely to be in Europe itself. It is now certain that at least two of the gunmen who carried out the Paris attack were among the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who entered Europe through Greece in the last four months.
Amid a Europe-wide political crisis over migrant flows from the Middle East, Asia and Africa, and increasing calls for tighter border controls, anti-immigration political parties are rapidly gaining support. Earlier this month German police detained a man who managed to drive across Europe from the Balkans with a carload of weapons destined for Paris.
Writing in the Sunday Times of London, the respected, though avowedly right-wing, historian Niall Ferguson said Europe had “opened its gates to outsiders who have coveted its wealth without renouncing their ancestral faith” and whose views are “not easily reconciled with the principles of our liberal democracies.”
But tougher border controls, abandoning the European Union Schengen Agreement, ignores the fact that there are an estimated 250 French militants who have returned from Syria, capable of radicalizing and recruiting hundreds more from the dismal immigrant banlieues of Paris.
Of course, Paris doesn’t have a monopoly on home grown militants. They exist in the U.K. too. They are a reminder that the poisonous ideology of ISIS, and its potential to attract militants across the globe, is not dependent on its capacity to capture land and impose its caliphate faraway from Europe’s shores.
The West sat on its hands for too long in Syria, haunted by its failures in Iraq and later, in Libya. This week Beirut and Paris paid the price for the West’s laconic response to terror. Other cities will pay in future, regardless of whether Europe closes its borders or the fate of Syria. In the words of Churchill: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on 16 November 2016.