WASHINGTON – The Paris terror attacks lead to Syria, to the Arab Spring, to the Sunni-Shia conflicts, to al Qaeda, and to the rise of ISIL and of the Caliphate. This is a huge mess; and there are no quick solutions. The real issue is not about catching a few bad guys. The issue is in endless religious strife in which opposing militants in the Middle East have long lists of mortal enemies. The West is on many of them.
Here is the sad truth. The Middle East and parts of North Africa are in total chaos. Within many societies there is a structural inability to chart a rational course towards modernity focused on education, enterprise, more gender equality, inclusiveness, genuine political freedoms, and religious tolerance.
No viable path to modernity
This inability to choose and pursue modern, secular development models fuels economic stagnation, poverty and despair. Prolonged stagnation fuels resentment. A great deal of this resentment is now channeled into religiously inspired movements.
These movements preach violent actions against various enemies: rapacious and corrupt governments, other religious sects, Christians, you name it. According to the militants, only the physical destruction of their enemies will bring about true religious piety, peace, justice, and prosperity.
Of course, none of this is true. What is true is that, inspired by this folly, religious believers have created a disheartening cycle of violence that generates violent reactions, followed by more violence.
Enter the Caliphate
Without exaggeration, this is chaos. At least in some parts of the region, (Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen in the Middle East; Libya in North Africa), unmanageable chaos. The creation of the self-described Caliphate in parts of Syria and subsequently Iraq made this turmoil even worse, in as much as it created a tangible symbol of what is viewed by some Sunni militants as a successful religious revolution.
The West is caught in this mess
Deep down, the West has really nothing to do with any of this. However both Europe and the US are caught into this trap because of old historic ties to the Middle East and more recent connections related to their dependence on oil and gas produced in the Region.
In the case of the US, there were also high-profile, complex relations with the discredited regime of the Shah in Iran. And then there were military interventions: the first Iraq war in 1991, and then the occupation of Iraq in 2003.
Europe is exposed
In the case of Europe, there is a mix of old colonial ties and more recently a huge migration into Europe from the Middle East and North Africa. In France alone, (population almost 65 million), there are about 5 million Muslims, most of them of Arab descent. In Belgium, Muslim are 6% of the population, in Austria 5.7%, in the Netherlands 5.5%.
Anyway, you get the picture. Many of these immigrants, for whatever reasons feel discriminated against, marginalized, humiliated, or worse. Therefore, many of them look at the radical movements in the Middle East as an answer to their quest for meaning and belonging.
Disaffected young Muslims
And so here you can see how the Middle East/North Africa religion-inspired chaos has been exported into Europe. There is a back and forth of French-born, Belgium-born, UK-born would-be militants who have traveled to Syria or elsewhere. They have been recruited. They now believe that exporting Jihad into Europe is a good way to advance their cause, because Europe is somehow responsible for the plight of the Arab World and beyond.
The road to Paris
And this leads us to the tragic Paris massacres perpetrated by some young French and Belgians terrorists of Middle Eastern origin.
Sadly, because of all the above, it should be reasonably clear that there are no quick fixes to any of this. The Middle East will be in turmoil for who knows how long. The ISIL Caliphate can be attacked and destroyed. But, even assuming a successful operation, the attackers should have a workable game plan on how to reintegrate the Sunnis who lived under ISIL into the main stream. Good luck with that.
As for “Combating Terror”, this is almost “Mission Impossible”. As I indicated above, in Europe there are tens of millions of Muslims. Even assuming that only a tiny fraction of them are potentially dangerous individuals willing to engage in acts of terror, police authorities and intelligence agencies simply do not have the resources to sift through millions of people and identify all the bad guys before they act.
In the US the picture is a little better because there are far fewer Muslims, and therefore not so many individuals who may represent a potential threat.
Be prepared to absorb the consequences
Still, be that as it may, the West has to be prepared to absorb the violent consequences of an enormous crisis affecting many countries. Terrorism is the most unfortunate manifestation of the intellectual and moral chaos now rampant in the Middle East. And it is very hard to protect ourselves against it, in large part because there are too many potential suspects, and in part because we live in free societies in which individual liberties are protected and police powers are limited by the law.
Allow enhanced police powers?
Of course, we could collectively and indefinitely do what France just did in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. Declare an open-ended state of emergency. This would allow law enforcement agencies to do pretty much all they want, including arrests without warrants, search and seizure operations, and what not. Forget about “probable cause”. But this is not doable. We love our freedoms.
Free but vulnerable
Therefore, as we want to stay free, we also have to accept our inherent vulnerability. Nobody from the outside can fix the Middle East. And its turmoil will go on and on. And terrorism aimed at Western targets is unfortunately a manifestation of this turmoil.