As #PrayForNice trends on Twitter and another European city is plunged into terror and tragedy, what action have we taken to name, confront and defeat the evil which threatens us?
The news and images coming from the French city of Nice on what should be the most celebratory of days for the French people – Bastille Day – are awful, and heartbreaking, and wearily familiar.
As of this time, 77 people are confirmed dead, mown down on the Promenade des Anglais by a truck driven at high speed and containing an arsenal of weapons and explosives. This is clearly an act of terror – the numerous bullet holes in the windshield of the blood stained truck a testament to the amount of force it took the security services to stop the vehicle. And of course this is the third time in nineteen months that the French have suffered a grievous, high profile terrorist attack on their soil – first Charlie Hebdo, then the Bataclan, both in Paris, and now the Bastille Day celebrations in Nice.
To this we can add the Brussels terrorist attacks in March this year and, looking beyond Europe, numerous deadly attacks in Turkey as well as the terrorist shootings in San Bernadino and Orlando.
This is the future. This is the kind of terrorism which we are now going to face – not truly grand attacks on the level of 9/11, where casualties run into the thousands, but a long, slow grind of relentless medium-sized attacks, often on lower-value targets or in second tier, provincial cities. Often their planning and execution may turn out to be quite crude – this is not the age of the cunning master plan coordinated from a supervillain’s lair, but of “quick and dirty” plots hatched by autonomous cells and all the more unsettling precisely because they do not strike where we expect.
Now, murder comes to the airport entrance before the security checkpoints, or to an unremarkable concert venue, or a nondescript office or the main strip of a seaside town. Places which with the best will in the world are impossible to defend 24/7.
Radical Islamist terror has moved firmly into the age of the lone wolf, or the quasi-autonomous sleeper cell.
Why? Think of it like WiFi. Terrorist networks can no longer safely rely on coordinating large scale attacks in the West from a remote location with a reasonable degree of confidence that they will go undetected. Therefore, if ISIS and other fundamentalist Islamist organisations cannot physically cooordinate logistics and dispatch operatives to conduct attacks in Western cities, they must resort to other, remote means.
When the traditional methods of internet, telephone and even face-to-face communication are at risk of being intercepted by the security services, proponents of fundamentalist Islamist ideology must instead rely on transmitting their ideology and broad objectives through more general means, including YouTube and social media, targeted at the right susceptible population – usually disaffected and alienated young Muslim men who do not feel connected to or fully invested in society. The leaders of this death cult then rely on some of their indoctrinated targets possessing sufficient initiative to become their own mini terrorist masterminds.
We saw this approach in San Bernadino last winter, and again in Orlando last month. As more facts emerge, it may become clear that the Nice attack followed this pattern. Alternatively, it may be that Europe’s porous border and chaotic influx of migrants allowed foreign terrorists to slip through the net and aid in the planning or execution of the attack (press reports currently indicate that ID found on the truck driver suggest that he is a 31-year-old with dual French-Tunisian nationality, but this ID could well be fake or stolen).
But what is already crystal clear is the stark, uncomfortable fact that since Paris and Brussels (or Madrid and London, if you want to cast back a decade) our leaders have done nothing – nothing at all – to meaningfully grapple with this scourge of Islamist terrorism. So terrified are they of being accused of intolerance or racism that all we hear is the furious insistence that these atrocities have “nothing to do with Islam“.
And it’s just false. Of course the barbarity in Nice has absolutely nothing to do with the peaceful, moderate Islam practise by millions of adherents in the West and elsewhere. But it cannot be denied that those who do commit mass murdering acts of terrorism often explicitly reference Islam as their inspiration and justification – and do so from a very literal reading of certain Islamic texts. Moderate Islam does not inspire terrorist attacks, clearly. But fundamentalist, radical Islam often does, and we need to admit as much, for if we cannot even name the threat which we face what chance do we have of overcoming it?
As Douglas Murray rightly pointed out in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre:
Contra the political leaders, the Charlie Hebdo murderers were not lunatics without motive, but highly motivated extremists intent on enforcing Islamic blasphemy laws in 21st-century Europe. If you do not know the ideology — perverted or plausible though it may be — you can neither understand nor prevent such attacks. Nor, without knowing some Islamic history, could you understand why — whether in Mumbai or Paris — the Islamists always target the Jews.
[..] We have spent 15 years pretending things about Islam, a complex religion with competing interpretations. It is true that most Muslims live their lives peacefully. But a sizeable portion (around 15 per cent and more in most surveys) follow a far more radical version. The remainder are sitting on a religion which is, in many of its current forms, a deeply unstable component. That has always been a problem for reformist Muslims. But the results of ongoing mass immigration to the West at the same time as a worldwide return to Islamic literalism means that this is now a problem for all of us. To stand even a chance of dealing with it, we are going to have to wake up to it and acknowledge it for what it is.
The cost of this furious pretence that Islam is totally unconnected to the “so called” Islamic State and the terror attacks committed in its name can now be measured in a growing toll of human lives. And the slickness with which we now mourn these events, with standardised tributes and modes of behaviour, only serves to emphasise our utter lack of coordination in preventing their recurrence.
As this blog commented after the recent Brussels attacks in March, charting the inevitability of the public grieving followed by zero meaningful action:
Impromptu shrines appear in a major square of the afflicted city, with candles, chalk drawings and sometimes a bit of impromptu John Lennon.
And the day closes with Europe and America’s major landmarks illuminated to resemble the national flag of the afflicted nation. They’re getting really good at that part now.
Fast forward a day, and plans are well afoot to grant even more powers to the well-meaning but overstretched security services – who were unable to make use of their current extensive powers to thwart the attack – and generally at the expense of our civil liberties. Particularly our rights to privacy and free speech.
Fast forward a month, and we have all moved on. Domestic political concerns, celebrity scandals and daily life have reasserted themselves.
I think we can all agree that we’ve got the public grief, cathartic expressions of solidarity and stern faced authoritarianism down to a fine art at this point.
When are we going to start acknowledging – and maybe even tackling – the root causes?
Unless our leaders can openly and unequivocally acknowledge that the terrorist scourge which sees murder brought to the streets of Europe on a near-monthly basis has its roots in a fundamentalist, literalist and militant strain of Islam, how are we ever to really get to grips with the issues of radicalisation and non-assimilation?
If the deaths of eighty slain people in Nice have nothing whatsoever to do with Islam then how do we hope to save young and impressionable Muslim schoolgirls in London from stealing away to Syria to join ISIS, or young and impressionable Muslim boys from falling under the seductive spell of jihadist recruiters?
If we cannot openly and comfortably name the enemy which we face – not an entire religion, but certainly a very real and present strain of Islam – then how do we even begin to formulate policies which will meaningfully reduce this threat over time?
The answer is that we cannot. We can clamp down further on our precious civil liberties, bartering away even more of our freedoms in the hope of purchasing additional security (and letting the terrorists win, since they count as a victory anything which diminishes our liberal democratic way of life). We can ramp up the surveillance state and clamp down on freedom of speech to make it look like we are doing something purposeful, even though the costs of such draconian measures far exceed the benefits. But none of these measures will stop two radicalised guys and a truck from repeating the horrors of Nice in Camden Town or Edinburgh.
It is impossible to create the perfectly secure country, and the closer one tries to get to this ideal, greater and greater are the liberties which must be traded away in exchange. Therefore, the only way to stop more Nice attacks from happening is to approach the problem from the other end and seek to tackle the radical, fundamentalist Islamist extremism.
And this is the one thing which our leaders, in their tragic fear of giving offence, shamefully refuse to do.
Top Image: Guardian
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