A day that began with Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron hailing the drone strike believed to have killed a high-profile ISIL member in Syria as "a strike at the heart" of the movement ended, late Friday, with France’s President Francois Hollande declaring a national state of emergency and closing his country’s borders following a string of attacks in Paris that left more than 120 people dead.
The Paris massacres, for which the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has claimed responsibility, occurred the same day a suicide bomber killed 21 Iraqis in Baghdad. They capped a week in which twin suicide bombings in a Shia neighborhood of Beirut killed 43, while Western governments concluded that the Russian airliner that crashed killing 224 people last month in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula had, in fact, been downed by a bomb.
Terrorism — spectacular mass-casualty attacks on civilians designed by perpetrators to build their notoriety — is suddenly back in the headlines. And that’s a marked shift from recent years in which media attention has focused on the rise of ISIL, which has eclipsed Al-Qaeda both on the ground and in the fears of Western security officials.
Osama bin Laden’s movement had relied heavily on transcontinental spectacular attacks on civilian targets to spread its message — the East Africa embassy bombings and 9/11; the London, Madrid, Istanbul and Bali bombings, and a steady stream of sectarian bombings in Iraq and Pakistan, for example. But it largely kept itself in the shadows, operating clandestinely so as to stay out of the sights of Western and allied military powers.
ISIL may have shared some of Al-Qaeda’s ideology and originated in the movement’s Iraqi affiliate, but its focus has been quite different: It took advantage of the collapse of state power in both Iraq and Syria to brazenly raise its flag over territory it sought to hold, and even govern. Despite the grotesquerie of its propaganda videos depicting captives being gruesomely tortured to death, ISIL fought a conventional guerrilla war using highly mobile forces to stretch its enemies’ defenses, swarming against designated targets to overwhelm and conquer them. But ISIL’s drive to conquer territory has enabled its adversaries to counter it with conventional military tactics — this week’s recapture of the Iraqi city of Sinjar by Kurdish Peshmerga forces supported by U.S. air power being a prime example.
Such an enterprise, of course, is often inconclusive — the legendary British military officer T.E. Lawrence ("of Arabia") compared it to "eating soup with a fork," the mobility of the guerrilla force making it difficult to destroy once it retreats from any territory where it has mustered. Still, such a conflict remains relatively predictable — or, more accurately, its unpredictability is confined to a defined territory, which in the case of ISIL is Iraq and Syria.
The past week’s events (and those of the past 14 years) serve up a reminder that mass-casualty attacks on civilian populations in enemy capitals — whether planned and executed long-distance, or simply carried out by sympathizers or fighters returning from the Syria-Iraq theater to their home countries — can’t be effectively countered through conventional military means in the way that ISIL’s territorial ambitions potentially could be.
ISIL claimed responsibility for bombing the Russian airliner, saying it was revenge for Moscow’s military intervention in support of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. And it claimed responsibility for the Beirut bombing — which targeted a stronghold of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia movement that has intervened in Syria to prop up Assad’s forces — and for Friday’s Baghdad bombing aimed at the funeral of a pro-government fighter killed in the battle to recapture Sinjar.
ISIL had not, thus far demonstrated a capacity to exercise command-and-control over long-distance operations despite a growing number of acolytes in locales as far-flung as Nigeria and Afghanistan, but events over the past week certainly underscore a threat of mass-casualty attacks inspired by the group (or perhaps, by its nearest rivals) in distant capitals.
Organized mass-casualty attacks on civilians designed not simply to strike fear into an enemy population and boost the political pretensions of the perpetrators, but also to attract recruits and funding. As much as Friday’s mass brutality will unite most of France in revulsion at the carnage, its perpetrators and their backers are betting that their wanton cruelty will inspire more radicalized youths in Europe and beyond to join the movement. (Let’s not forget, a disconcerting number of French youths expressed admiration for the Charlie Hebdo attackers.) They’ll also hope to generate the sort of polarization in France that will produce further disaffection that they can exploit to swell their ranks.
Experts have long concurred that effectively countering such tactics relies more on police work, and winning the support of the communities in which radical groups try to recruit, than it does on military strategy.