Learning to Live With Islamic Terrorism, in France and Beyond
After the horror at Nice, perhaps the most depressing comment came from France's prime minister. Calling for unity in the face of terror, Manuel Valls observed: "Times have changed, and we should learn to live with terrorism. We have to show solidarity and collective calm."
If this sounds like resignation, it shouldn't. Valls is no squish. After the Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015, he told the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg that accusations of "Islamophobia" were too often used to silence legitimate criticism of political Islam.
What's more, France has been under a state of emergency since November, when Islamic State operatives went on a murder spree in Paris. In practice this has meant the state has monitored the communications of thousands of young Muslims, searched their homes and businesses without a warrant and used its national army to defend soft targets.
Then there is the broader war in Syria and Iraq. The French are only one nation participating in the campaign against the Islamic State's self-proclaimed caliphate. In recent months this effort has seen some success. Just this week coalition airstrikes appear to have killed the Islamic State's minister of war, Omar Shishani. Last month, coalition forces liberated Fallujah in Iraq.
And yet none of this was able to stop a petty criminal named Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel from driving a truck into a crowd of people celebrating Bastille Day. Some of this is because of the nature of jihad these days. Both al Qaeda and the Islamic State have encouraged smaller-scale attacks in the West that can be executed without planning or coordination from a wider network. While no group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack in Nice, and the authorities are still investigating the killer's motivations, the Islamic State in particular has encouraged its supporters and sympathizers to conduct this kind of mass murder.
As the New York Times' Rukmini Callimachi reported in March, the Islamic State still encourages larger-scale attacks, but as the French security blog Kurultay concluded, they also encourage "isolated actions of self-radicalized people, who have absolutely no direct contact with ISIS, and yet who will consciously act in its name."
This approach is not an accident. Michael Smith II, the chief operating officer for Kronos Advisory, which monitors the Islamic State online, told me that this is a major emphasis of the Islamic State today. "Their leader has explicitly stated 'you are compelled to pledge allegiance to me and this allegiance is affirmed with action, not just words,'" he said. This means one of two things, Smith said: Either emigrate to the new caliphate and fight in the Middle East, or wage jihad in your home country.
That's just the Islamic State. The same kind of inspired terrorism has become a trend for other groups as well. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula began to foment these kinds of attacks in July 2010 when it began to publish its English-language online magazine, Inspire. Since last fall, in what some have called "the stabbing intifadah," Israelis have been menaced by a wave of Palestinians wielding knives and guns and ramming vehicles into civilians.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an expert on radical Islam, told me that all of this highlights that military gains against the Islamic State do not diminish the broader threat of jihad. "The ISIS self-professed caliphate is collapsing," he said. "This is going to really hurt the organization, but jihadism itself continues to gain power. It's a much bigger problem than just ISIS."
That problem is not going to go away, even as the military campaign against the Islamic State begins to succeed. The war on terror will be with us for the foreseeable future, and so will the war the terrorists wage against us.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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