Chris Marshall explores the changing face of British counter-terrorism after the attacks on Paris.
On the evening of 13 November 2015, Paris and its northern suburb, Saint-Denis, fell victim to what was undoubtedly one of the worst terrorist attacks of recent times. Appropriately, worldwide tributes flooded global media in tribute to the French capital. However, President Hollande’s sudden decision to launch the biggest airstrike to date of Opération Chammal (France’s bombing campaign against ISIL) was widely considered to have been unnecessarily hurried and to have lacked long-term vision. This week, British politics is likely to produce a related decision on airstrikes. This article aims to determine whether long-term national defence can benefit by following in France’s footsteps.
Lessons from History
Undoubtedly, the political situation surrounding terrorist activity has undergone key transformations since the events of 11 September 2001. However, one element that has not necessarily altered is politicians’ apparent need to display a hardened exterior through the utilisation of immediate, reactive bombing in the Middle East. In his article entitled The Endless Cycle of Terrorism, Ivan Eland condemns the frequency of such actions. He believes that the so-called disposition behind the “war of civilisations”, initiated after 9/11, has been unfortunately maintained and continues today. As a result, terrorism has simply taken the form of “a heinous Islamist reaction and retaliation to continued Western neo-colonial meddling” in Muslim territory. If Britain, amongst others, can suspend the mind set that future physical intervention in Iraq and Syria is necessary, then incentives to attack Western powers will surely decrease significantly. To showcase some potential evidence that drove the Paris attacks, France recently sent troops to Mali (February 2014) in an attempt to tackle Islamic extremists, who had obtained fighters and weapons from neighbouring Libya.
The aggressive mentality that developed from 2001 has led to a string of conflicts, all bearing partially negative consequences and all creating vast power vacuums in the subject nation as postcolonial regimes toppled and were not replaced with planned political strategies for the future. This is something that powers such as Britain should have foreseen and implemented. A case study that demonstrates this point brilliantly is the alternative response to the Mumbai attacks of 2008. In the aftermath of the events, the Indian government did not rush into frenzied war implementation. Instead, they opened up organised investigation and unravelling the plot and execution method first, stating that “patience is the order of the day.” Immediate airstrikes would probably have escalated the situation and drawn India and Pakistan into an insufferable war. Through indirect methods such as confronting the flow of economic resources from Saudi Arabian monarchies and putting pressure on Turkey’s rulers to put aside their domestic concerns, Britain and the West surely have a much greater chance of stemming terrorist development in the future.
Through this comparison with past counterterrorism strategy, I do not wish to criticise the proposed British airstrike policies or indeed the new developments in Opération Chammal. However, although emotional rage and immediate action is a perfectly natural and justifiable reaction to the recent events in Paris, it would seem foolish for Britain to implement a prolonged strategy based on this logic for the foreseeable future. Admittedly, and as David Cameron has stated in his foreword to the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015, no government can predict the future based on history alone.However, no more than a brief glance at the past 14 years of counter-terrorist strategy reveals that something new needs to begin now. This is not to be found in missiles dangerous raining down upon localities saturated with both civilians and terrorists, even though this may be necessary as a short-term solution.
Naivety in British Politics?
This week will probably see a decision over one of the most important British political decisions concerning counter-terrorism we have seen in recent years. Should the decision go ahead to implement airstrikes in order to offset ISIL developments, there is the danger of repeating the mistakes of history. However, there is also great potential for a new, more successful, chapter in counterterrorist strategy. Shreds of evidence for this potential success are scattered throughout the media, such as Boris Johnson and his outlook that “bombing Syria is not the whole solution…but it’s a good start” and his confirmation that this would not be a “knee-jerk” reaction to the events in Paris, but rather a motion representing the sober judgment of the Prime Minister.The Mayor of London has assured the population that this situation is wholly different to that of 2003 because now nobody is thought to seriously doubt the immediate threat posed to British soil. As a result of this apparent change in attitude, politicians are calling for an idealised local form of “boots on the ground”, utilising the power of Presidents Assad and Putin. Such a strategy does not appear particularly promising, however, when Johnson has recently referred to dealing with these leaders as like a “writhing bag of snakes.” Although intentions may seem promising, practicality apparently lacks.
Of course, Jeremy Corbyn and his relatively niche collection of labour supporters (with regard to this specific topic) mark a different outlook altogether. Despite the fact that Corbyn claims to be “respectful of differences of opinion within the party” he has made quite clear that “it is the leader who decides”, seemingly set on opposing air strike methodology. Although maybe ethically noble, the idea of inaction in an issue that affects Britain so close to home appears implausible. By laying foundations through immediate, if rash, action, Britain simply slows terrorist activity in an attempt to develop more sophisticated alternative approaches. The House of Lords leader Baroness Stowell of Beeston has summed up this point accurately:
We cannot shed our responsibility here. We are under threat ourselves. We see the IS force as a direct threat to our way of life. How could we possibly hand over responsibility for that to other people?
In addition to conflict directly within the political sphere, the British government is increasingly facing cyber-based challenges. The role of the “hacktivist” group Anonymous claimed to have taken down 3,824 pro-ISIL Twitter accounts within 48 hours of the Paris attacks and were also able to reveal personal details about many online recruiters. If one makes the confident assumption that these figures represent a minimal portion of the total pro-ISIL social media constructs, then the enormity of online propaganda comes clearly into vision. In his extensive work on terrorist strategy and action, Bruce Hoffman has outlined the five key stages of terrorist development; attention, acknowledgement, recognition, authority, governance. The access to global marketing through the internet hands the first two steps in this five-step process to terrorists on a silver platter. The “recognition” element simply requires the capitalisation on this internet marketing process through violent acts, something that is becoming all two common. This technological facilitation of terrorist strategy may well be the dominant element that British policy will need to focus around in future counterterrorism actions.
Although brief, both the errors of the past and potential for the future have been framed within the current tense environment of British politics. Should we bravely stray from historical consistency in order to adapt and challenge the ever-changing, fluid movements of terrorist activity, we could experience like never before against extremism. The events in Paris, although horrific, cannot be simply compared to terrorist attacks ten, fifteen, maybe twenty years ago, and treated as thus. Even though airstrikes may be a necessary first step, they must not be implemented without secure plans for what will happen afterwards. If there is no sufficient follow-up, then we may fall into an unnecessary back-and-forth conflict once more. Having said this, maybe December 2015 will mark a new venture in British counter-terrorist policy, one that might utilise technology rather than weaponry.
By Chris Marshall