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The horror of Paris, among other recent terrorist attacks, has led to new assessments of the goals and methods of Daesh, and renewed confusion as to how to respond. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Paris attacks and the dissonance of terror

On the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, arguably France’s most famous living author, Michel Houellebecq, released his mordantly satirical novel Submission about a future France under the rule of a charismatically enforced sharia law. One of his friends was killed in the massacre. That was January. As cartoonists were butchered for their trade, four people were murdered for their faith in a kosher supermarket.

In August, American tourists disarmed a man who opened fire aboard a train travelling to Paris from Amsterdam. Their intervention meant no one died. In September, a retiring French magistrate who specialised in terrorism said: “The darkest days are ahead of us. The real war that ISIS [Daesh] intends to wage on our soil has not yet begun.” 

Many shared the magistrate’s sense of inevitability. The right-wing party of Marine Le Pen, National Front, grew in popularity. Skinheads stalked the streets. On Friday night came grim fulfilment. 

The Stade de France seats 80,000 and is the crown of the country’s football stadiums. It was the site of the 1998 World Cup final, when the hosts became world champions and the brilliant son of Algerian immigrants – Zinedine Zidane – emerged spectacularly in international football. Last Friday night, France’s national team hosted current world champions Germany and tens of thousands came out. What followed was macabre surrealism. 

In the 17th minute, the game tied at 0–0, players and fans hear the first of three explosions outside the grounds. Greeted with cheers by fans – who assume it the fireworks of revellers – the players themselves pause momentarily before resuming. Three minutes later, another explosion. This is received by some with cheers, and with stunned silence by others. The player on the ball, Patrice Evra, pauses nervously and looks up to the stands. Play continues, but the French president – François Hollande – is discreetly escorted from the ground. 

No one yet knows – certainly not a substantial number – that the stadium is under siege, and that suicide bombers have been repelled from the ground. But the respective coaches do, and they make the decision not to tell their players at half-time. The athletes remain cocooned. 

No statement is made over the public announcement system, and the game completes its full 90 minutes. Fans weren’t as oblivious as the players they were watching – each carried a news service in their pocket – but patchy mobile reception in the stadium meant that news was reaching only a few. Nervous whispers would do the rest. 

Then, emergency sirens could be heard, seemingly confirming the sketchy reports. An ambiguity was established. The magnetising normality of the game continuing – and the absence of any emergency announcement – jarred bizarrely with what people were reading on their phones or hearing from strangers. Knowledge was hard to divine from the information – distorted or contradicted. This sort of cognitive static is a ripe metaphor for the intelligence agencies trying to complete jigsaw puzzles. 

Whether by fluke or design, the response – or the immediate lack of one – prevented a potentially fatal crush of panicked fans. Or perhaps it was considered safer by a majority of fans to stay inside, a theory suggested by the fact that many thousands occupied the pitch after the game, refusing to heed the assurances over the PA system that it was safe to leave the stadium. When multiple, highly co-ordinated terror attacks happen simultaneously in a city, where, precisely, is safe? 

When the players entered the tunnel at the end of the game, they stopped and watched TV screens. Then they knew. While many fans would remain in the stadium for an hour after the game, none stayed as long as the players themselves. The German team were warned not to return to their hotel, and mattresses were provided for their long and sleepless night. The French team stayed with them in solidarity, not leaving until 3am under armed guard. At sunrise, the German team was taken directly to the airport. Their coach would later say that little was eaten, and few slept. The next day, French footballer Lassana Diarra would receive the news that his cousin had died in the attacks. 

On another side of Paris, while the footballers were holed up in the ground, gunmen stormed a concert at the Bataclan theatre. Daesh would later describe the event as pagan decadence, a performance by American indie rock group Eagles of Death Metal. Their name is ironic and their music filled with ebullient wit. The large crowd was mostly young, and subject to summary executions. When the killers entered, the lights were down but for the stage strobes. Power chords – and their joyous receipt – were then abruptly stopped by the sound of rapid machine-gun fire. Eighty-nine died. 

A 19-year-old Australian – Emma Parkinson – was shot in the hip. She has since been released from hospital. Days ago, Emma’s friend Kate wrote on her Facebook page: “It’s 4am. I have nothing to say that’s worth saying about this because it hurts too much. Seeing the city that I love and the people that I love hurt, scared and broken is traumatising. Just keep this beautiful city, the people who have been lost and their loved ones in your thoughts this weekend.”

So far, 129 people have died in Paris – shot or blown apart in pubs, restaurants and theatres. Hollande said it was war, and shut the French borders for the first time since World War II. Later this week, a gunfight between French forces and suspected terrorists broke out in the suburb of Saint-Denis. A female suicide bomber detonated herself. Bomb threats suspended another football match involving Germany, and reports from around the world came in about random attacks on Muslims. In Australia, paranoia registered in a flurry of reporting about phantom gunmen and an abandoned pair of shoes. 

‘Paradigm shift’

The Paris attacks marked, it was argued, a stunning shift in Daesh’s reach and operations. It was called a “paradigm shift” by some terror experts: the inclusion of international theatres to its local, territorial ambitions. In the previous two weeks, Daesh claimed responsibility for the downing of a Russian commercial airliner over Egypt, killing all 224 people onboard – by way of a soft drink can transformed into an improvised explosive device – and for the bombings in Beirut that killed 44. 

One interpretation is that, assuming the sincerity of Daesh’s responsibility, these attacks suggest not only a shift in strategy, but increased global reach. Yet Daesh are ardent propagandists, and their presumed ubiquity is partially illusory. It might be proof of desperation, rather than strength. “It’s difficult to say they’re responsible for anything,” John Coyne tells me. Coyne is a former intelligence analyst for the Australian Federal Police, and now a senior policy analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. “It’s the same with al-Qaeda. They’re so loosely affiliated. It’s not a single, evil entity. 

“But ISIS have taken their fight to their homeland, so in this case, it does represent a shift. But ISIS are losing ground. We’re seeing a desperate ISIS now. The scary part is that they’ve demonstrated a sophistication in their co-ordination. It’s been a long time since someone bombed an airplane.” 

Coyne says, though, that despite this apparent internationalisation, Daesh’s goals remain local: the expansion of their territory in pursuit of a caliphate. “A senior US official told me,” says Coyne, “that the difference between ISIS and al-Qaeda was that AQ never took the rubbish out. What he means is that ISIS are assuming the responsibilities of a state.” 

The Paris attacks have poured kerosene on the asylum-seeker debate in Europe and here in Australia as they have asked questions about reinstating troops on the ground. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has ruled out sending ground troops, with an eye to the chequered success of the strategy in the past. United States President Barack Obama is similarly sceptical. 

“Yes, there are questions about boots on the ground,” Coyne says. “And on a battlefield, with a large allied force, there’s no question that ISIS can be defeated. But the million-dollar question involves addressing the preconditions to this violence. 

“The West’s scoreboard for regime change is not good. Compare the deaths under Saddam [Hussein] and what’s happened since. So we have to examine those preconditions. There was no clear end-state for Iraq – it was simply getting rid of Saddam. Now is the time for sympathy and empathy and cool heads. This sounds like a cliché – but we have to ask ourselves seriously: What do we want to do? Some strategies could make things worse. Look at Hungary and Poland shutting its borders to asylum seekers. At the heart of radicalisation is dislocation. We can’t make decisions that make things worse. Now look at the likely planting [by the Paris attackers] of a fake Syrian passport. That’s there for division. That’s deliberate.” 

Daesh’s dream of division – with its usefulness as a tool of conscription – was explained this week by Waleed Aly, in a monologue on Network Ten’s The Project. The segment went viral, attracting 100 million viewers. Aly said, in part: “ISIL [Daesh] don’t want you to know they would quickly be crushed if they ever faced a proper army on a real battlefield. They want you to fear them. [Their] strategy is to split the world into two camps. It’s that black and white … They want countries like ours to reject their Muslims and vilify them.” 

As Aly said, Daesh have told us as much. These acts are a global version of the group’s antecedent, al-Qaeda in Iraq and its mission of murderous provocation of Shia Muslims into a final and “cleansing” sectarian war. Divide and conquer has long been their Machiavellian logic. The problem is parsing genuine threat from the illusory – of soberly reckoning with danger, without having our fear figure in the very strategies we seek to repel. It is a difficult task.

Intelligence nightmare

While Paris was in lockdown on Friday night, some journalists tweeted that this was likely the worst intelligence failure since September 11. Some of the terrorists were known to French authorities, and had been included in watchlists after their return from Syria. The specifics will no doubt be investigated soon. John Coyne is sure, though, that much criticism results from ignorance. “The collection of intelligence is incredibly difficult,” he says. “It’s both art and science. For a start, your assets aren’t that agile – you need to develop your sources over time. 

“Second, the world’s changed. Straight off the internet you can buy encrypted technologies. So the way targets do business has changed. I started my career looking at South-East Asia. You would study their culture, economics, their leaders, where they went to school, who was important in their lives. But it’s much harder when the opposing force is a 14-year-old online. As an analyst you’re making judgements beyond what the data suggests, and you’re asking yourself the question: When do you ring the warning bell? It’s an incredibly difficult situation. Intelligence agencies aren’t omnipresent. To do a day’s worth of surveillance – one day, one target – might take upwards of 20 people. In Australia, we have around 400 counterterror targets. Then there are those who haven’t been identified. That said, I think Australia has had sensational outcomes.

“All of this is balanced with issues of privacy and freedom. Rightly so. It’s not esoteric to ask: What does our society value? More security or more freedom? And politicians rush to satisfy public opinion. That’s when you get bad policy. None of this is easy.” 

Fear and loathing

There is dissonance everywhere. There is fear and loathing but few solutions. Many seek to impose clarity or meaning upon what looks like advanced nihilism. For sections of the left, that making of meaning has involved a gross simplicity: that the violence of Daesh is simply a refraction of the West’s, and its successful recruitment of foreign acolytes proof of the West’s mistreatment of its Muslim citizens. The theory fails to reckon with much. It overlooks the fact that the vast majority of Daesh’s victims are Muslims in the Middle East – the violence is sectarian and has little to do with the West. It ignores that Daesh is not fighting colonial occupation, but for the re-establishment of a neo-mediaeval caliphate. 

This unifying theory of Daesh being the West’s wave receding too readily accepts the grotesquely orotund rhetoric of the group – the Bataclan theatre was where “hundreds of pagans gathered for a concert of prostitution and vice” – as a revealing portrait of the West’s corrupt relationship with Islam. 

None of which entirely discredits this line of thinking, however. The West’s calamitous invasion of Iraq established the preconditions of this new phase of Islamism, and gave the world a terrible case study of the optimism of arrogance. Tony Blair, likely pre-empting the long-awaited Chilcot report on the 2003 invasion, conceded a few weeks ago that the incursion may have created a vacuum so dominantly filled now by Daesh. Blair took more than a decade to make this concession – one made much earlier by military advisers and observers. 

Certainly, the “clash of civilisation” conservatives have overlooked plenty, too. Such as the hapless history of regime change and the fact that the overwhelming percentage of terrorism is committed within just five countries – Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. This concentration of terror explains the swell of asylum seekers, and exposes a myopia from those who say Europe’s borders must be shut – the fact is these people are fleeing the very violence we condemn. When Abbott used the threat of terrorism a few weeks ago to explain why “the countries of Europe are more than entitled to control their borders against those who are no longer fleeing a conflict but seeking a better life” – and there has been a chorus of similar sentiments in the past week – he ignores the fact that most of Paris’s killers were French. 

This is a desultory shopping list. It is neither complete nor useful, and I cannot make sense of it. Twenty years ago political theorist Francis Fukuyama asked us to consider the primacy of the liberal, democratic state as the end of history – the triumphant conclusion of a long and bloody dialectic. But it’s hard to view the world so optimistically now. Alongside revived Islamism and the failed Arab Spring exists the expanding influence of Russian autocracy and China’s Marxist capitalism. Meanwhile, amid terror and economic tumult, European confidence is diminished. 

While some exaggerate the West’s role in Daesh – or do so at the exclusion of other things – the heavy spectre of history is there whether you see it or not. It hasn’t “ended”. As Helen Razer wrote this week: “To unburden ourselves of the weight of history is a luxury we have in the West … And, unless you are a foreign policy adviser, there is probably nothing wrong with forgetting history altogether and freeing yourself from its troublesome bonds. But, there is something impossible about believing that the ‘freedom’ that we enjoy, or endure, to be ahistoric is a perspective that everyone in the world understands.”

But Hegelian analysis is of less use to our intelligence services, who daily reckon with the wicked diffusion of terrorism, and with a dreadful acceptance. “It’s not possible to stop all terrorist attacks,” Coyne tells me. “That’s the awful reality. But in France right now there will still be plenty of people extremely upset and scarred by not identifying and preventing this attack.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 21, 2015 as "The dissonance of terror". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.

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