WASHINGTON – Terror attacks hatched by crazy militants underscore the deep vulnerabilities of modern, open societies. They trigger an avalanche of emotional and sometimes useless reactions. After Paris was hit hard (yet again) by another cell of Islamic radicals, French President Francois Hollande declared passionately that France is clearly under military assault, and that this is “war”.
Hit them hard?
Well, this being war, as a response to this ISIL-led “military operation” aimed at Paris, Hollande dispatched French jet fighters to hit targets in Raqqa, Syria, the de facto capital of the ISIL-led, “Caliphate”.
Does this response make any sense? Symbolically, may be. But as a military reaction, not a lot; unless Hollande intends to engage up to the end, namely until the complete annihilation of the Caliphate. Well, first of all, France does not have the military tools to do this. Besides, even complete success would only be a partial victory.
Destroy the Caliphate
I have argued here, several times, that the destruction of the self-described Caliphate would help the “anti-Islamic radicalism” effort. Indeed, the very existence of this bizarre but quite real state, right in the heart of the Middle East, is a source of pride and inspiration for all Islamic militants, and a powerful tool to get more recruits willing to go there, and fight “for the cause”.
That said, I am under no illusion that even the complete and final destruction of the Caliphate will take care of the anti-Western terror problem. At least some of the more committed militants will melt away from the ISIL-controlled territories in Eastern Syria and Northern Iraq and will regroup somewhere else.
A difficult agenda
Well, so what is to be done? There is no simple answer. There is no clear recipe that will quickly lead the West to “victory”. Let’s be clear, even in this strange conflict, “victory” will take place only when all the known and unknown terrorists have been caught, and I mean all of them; and –most crucial– nobody else will be willing to follow their example and engage in any fresh terror plots.
In other words, as in all conflicts, large or small, all the enemy combatants and would-be combatants have to say clearly and unequivocally: “We lost. We are done. No more fighting”.
This is the strategic objective of any conflict, and the only possible definition of “victory”. This must be the goal.
But in this conflict against a variety of terror groups it is an extremely difficult goal. And here is why.
Many foot soldiers
Whether we like it or not, there are thousands and thousands of people across the Muslim world, and within Muslim communities in Western countries, who now see the West as their mortal enemy. They are not going to change their mind on this any time soon. And there is not much we can do to about any of this.
It is easy
Besides, planning and executing acts of terrorism targeting civilians in Paris, New York, or Berlin is very easy. Right now, it only takes a few motivated people willing to die in a suicide mission to hatch a terror plot. And, sadly, there seem to be plenty of them.
The idea that the Paris terror attacks are the result of a highly sophisticated command and control structure is nonsense. Sure enough, it takes some planning and coordination to plot and execute, simultaneously, multiple attacks. But it is not that complicated. The terrorists identified a number of unprotected, soft targets, (a soccer stadium, a concert hall, and restaurants). Going there and opening fire, indiscriminately, against unarmed civilians is not that difficult.
It is cheap
And it gets even worse. These type of attacks against soft targets are cheap. Very cheap. A recent Reuters story quoted some experts who calculated the up front cost of the Paris terror attacks: about 7,000 Euro, approximately US $ 7,500.
Well, this is next to nothing. Even if the real amount spent is higher, say 20,000 Euro, it is still a very low bar. So, here is the thing. The barrier to entry to be a terror group is extremely low. You need a few, motivated people who know how to handle fire arms, and some cash.
How to protect ourselves
Having said all this, how do we protect ourselves? Sadly, a perfect shield does not exist. The main line of defense has to be more and better intelligence. Admittedly, this is a never-ending, thankless job.
There are millions of young, unhappy Muslims who may fit the profile of a would-be terrorist. How do you vet all of them? Impossible. Sure, we can get better at this. But we cannot become perfect.
In the meantime, we can extend police and intelligence services powers. But this creates a conflict with the need to protect our civil liberties. Therefore, here we have an issue. How far can we go? Do we want to become a police state, so that the police can better protect us? It is obvious that this can lead us down a dangerous road.
There is no strategy
Anyway, here is the thing. Bombing Raqqa a couple of times is not a serious strategy. A serious strategy would have to include the complete destruction of IS and the Caliphate. But even this would not be enough.
A serious strategy would have to include the creation of an alternative message that could be embraced by those who now choose militancy and terror plots. This would be the real “silver bullet” that would defeat terrorism. But I doubt that anybody can come up with a new, more appealing “peaceful package” that would actually “sell”. The end game here is to convince young militants that there are better ways to get more opportunities in the societies they live in. Unfortunately, nobody is that smart. As yet, nobody developed a new message that can gain real traction.
Silly grandstanding, empty talk
In the meantime, though, we waste time grandstanding with unproductive talk of “war”. Here in Washington, we waste time with stupid debates about how we should vet Syrian refugees who want to come to America. The idea that several US Governors and a majority of the members of the House have really nothing better to do other than demanding more stringent vetting of poor souls from Syria, in case some of them may be terrorists in disguise, is disheartening. Yes, potentially this may be an issue. But we already have a very stringent vetting process. Refugees do not just walk in. It takes several months of checks and re-checks.
In any event, is this all we can do? How about giving more resources to the FBI, the federal agency with the people who know something about the threat? And how about getting serious about destroying the Caliphate?