Bombing Syria Won’t Make Paris Safer
The enemy France and Europe are struggling against is far closer to home.
Bomb ISIS. Go ahead. They deserve it. It certainly satisfies the primal need for visible retaliation after the Paris attacks. It may even do some good in the struggle against terrorism in Europe. Some—but probably not very much.
The enemy against which France and Europe are struggling is not centered in Syria. It receives examples and inspiration from Syria. It travels to Syria for practice and training. But it arises and is formed at home, inside Europe. It threatened Europe long before ISIS ever took shape. In 1995, for example, Khaled Kelkal, a young Algerian raised in France, played a central role in a campaign by members of Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group to place bombs at commuter rail stations, at the Arc de Triomphe, and—in a familiar pattern—at a Jewish school. The bombing campaign killed eight people and wounded hundreds more.
These “RER bombings”—so-called after the French commuter rail line they targeted—introduced France to indigenous terrorism in the name of Islam. But more, much more, was to come. Unlike the Hamburg, Germany cell that incubated the 9/11 hijackers, or the largely Moroccan authors of the 2004 Madrid train bombing that killed 191 and wounded almost 2,000, Islamist violence in Europe over the past decade has been predominantly the work of the European-born. And there’s been considerable violence. This year alone, France has been struck seven times, beginning in January with the Charlie Hebdo killings and the attack on a kosher supermarket. These are only the attacks that succeeded: This week, British Prime Minister David Cameron revealed that U.K. intelligence services had prevented seven attacks within the past six months.
Closing Europe’s Harbors
It’s easy to imagine ISIS being broken up as a functioning force much as al-Qaeda has been: its leadership killed, its territory overrun, its communications disrupted. Yet even after that happens, some members of the Muslim minority inside Europe will remain disaffected, alienated, radical, and susceptible to messages of violence. It was often said during the Iraq War that we had to fight the terrorists over there lest we fight them over here. For Europe, the terrorists are already “over here”: They are among the children and grandchildren of the immigrants of the 1980s and 1990s, now endowed with the rights and liberties of citizens. For jihadists, would-be jihadists, and their sympathizers, Islam has evolved from a religion into a group identity and a system of belief that legitimates violence against state and society.
There have been many attempts to measure how widespread this ideology is. A 2006 Pew survey, for instance, found that about 15 percent of French and British Muslims agreed that violence against civilians was justified to protect Islam. Another 9 percent in the U.K. and 19 percent in France said that violence against civilians could be justified “rarely.” About half of French and British Muslims denied that Arabs had carried out the 9/11 attacks, a revealing marker of the extent to which conspiracy theories have taken hold in those communities. That same year, a survey of British Muslims found that almost one-quarter believed the 7/7 terrorist attacks on the London transit system had been justified because of Britain’s participation in the war on terror. Those attacks killed 56 people, including the four perpetrators, and wounded hundreds more. A decade later, a slightly larger proportion said they had sympathy for the motives behind the Charlie Hebdo attacks. A reporter who visited French Muslim neighborhoods after the Charlie Hebdo assault found a strange mix of justification and claims that the attacks were really carried out by Jews. Imams who preach hatred against other religions and dissidents of all kinds are features of life in a number of European countries.
The military campaign against the Islamic State, however successful, is unlikely to make much difference in curbing the violence-enabling radicalism present within Europe’s Muslim minority. The scale of the threat is overwhelming governments’ surveillance capacity. (After the Paris attacks, the Belgian interior minister described the Molenbeek suburb
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