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After Paris

Fighting ISIS' invisible hand

16 November Nov 2015 1557 16 November 2015
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“We live in difficult times", said Gilles De Kerchove, the EU counter-terrorism co-ordinator, talking to Vita International just a few days before the November 13th attacks in Paris. “I know I am saying nothing new, but what we are seeing now is a war of information.”

The rhetoric of war is ubiquitous in the media. Many are subtly inciting violence, and whipping up a frenzy: Le Monde yesterday headlined with “Terror in Paris, France at war”. The European right is spreading hysteria against migrants, as they call for a closing of the borders, and highlight the nationalities of the Paris attackers. But Jean-Claude Juncker’s declaration this November 15th made it clear that there is no need to carry out a review on our stance on refugees. The values of tolerance and freedom that Europe holds dear remain intact institutionally, after one of the worst assaults on them we have seen to date. However, France’s decision to launch 30 airstrikes in Raqqa, although understandable, is dangerously short-sighted. It leads us further down the path of rhetoric of war becoming acts of war.

Up until now, the declaration of war was one-sided, coming from ISIS. Now we are seeing a movement towards escalation, with France joining the media circus on the long road to total war. Their decision to carry out airstrikes is based on the logic of meeting violence with violence. However, this logic is reminiscent of French tactics during the Algerian War. France runs the risk of deepening postcolonial wounds amongst many of its own citizenry, already factional and divided, and thus creating further alienation and radical acts on its own soil. ISIS are not targeting our institutions, but rather they aim to exploit the fracture-lines already present in our societies.

Terrorism is an invisible hand, that is mutant and opportunistic. We cannot fight against an invisible hand with weapons of war. We need to be able to use strength of mind, cunning, and the ways of peace in order to destabilize the forces that congregate around these terrorist forces.

Dominique de Villepin, former Prime Minister of France

Through their media outlet Al-Hayat, the Islamic State are using psychological warfare tactics of fear-mongering, propaganda, and targeted radicalization. This is all to meet their aim of turning the war of information, which is what we are currently seeing in Europe, into a total war. The balance of power for the time being is still asymmetric. ISIS do not have the resources to bring the war to our doorsteps, but they do have a Twitter account.

Young people are most at risk of becoming radicalized, and the relationship between social media and the process of radicalization was discussed at length at the Europhilanthropics conference in Brussels on November 10th: a meeting where academics, politicians, lobbyists and leaders of civil society came together, in order to discuss the phenomenon of Islamic radicalization in Europe, particularly amongst young people, and what can be done to counter it. Pierre Conesa, a lecturer at Sciences Po, analysed the process in three parts. “First they target potential recruits on social media based on their profile. Then they get in contact, and enter the “seduction” phase. Then comes isolation, and the third and final stage is to create commitment to the cause".

At this point of the crusade against the Islamic State, it is very important that attacks take place in every country that has entered into the alliance against the Islamic State, especially the US, UK, France, Australia, and Germany. Rather, the citizens of crusader nations should be targeted wherever they can be found.

ISIS - Dabiq, Issue 4

The decentralised nature of the Islamic State is one that creates a lot of concern to counterterrorism strategists, as recruits do not have to travel to Iraq and Syria in order to become radicalized and carry out attacks. As De Kerchove noted, "three years ago, the radicalization process was a lot slower. Now, with social media, it can happen in two weeks". There is a lot of information available on the Internet, and ISIS’ call to battle is very clear. However, just as clear after the Paris attacks is the emergence of a counter-narrative based on values that are opposed to those of the Islamic State. De Kerchove and his team are working hard to keep these values at the forefront, so that we don’t all plunge into a war that moves from our computer screens onto the streets.

Total war would look like repeats of the Paris attacks. So do we keep a level head, and play the long game against Islamic radicalization? Up until now, the EU counter-terrorism team are using the more far-sighted methods of employing educational and counter-narrative strategies:

We have amassed a team of experts, whose specialization is communication: be it through social media, or other marketing channels. When you look at the power of advertising, it’s formidable. It knows how to appeal to people’s emotions, and targets different sectors of society. We are doing the same thing: we use Twitter, and Facebook, and are working to send out a message that is imbued with the European values of tolerance, freedom, and non-violence, to create a counter-narrative that will fight against radicalization at its core.

Gilles De Kerchove, speaking to Vita International

Following the tragedy in Paris, we are seeing the public adoption of this counter-narrative that the EU counter-terrorism unit has been focusing on creating.

Everywhere on social media there is the hashtag #JeSuisParis, the French flag over Facebook profile pictures, moments of silence for the victims in Paris being held worldwide, and widespread messages of tolerance. Reminders that grouping Muslims and ISIS is akin to grouping all Christians under the same categories of the Ku Klux Klan and the Westboro Baptist Church.

To those who question the strength of Western values; to the critics that say we are decadent, disorganized, and cannot agree on what we stand for, I suggest spending 10 minutes of your time on social media. Choosing not to meet violence with violence does not mean we are weak. The most recent declaration of French political journalist and intellectual Eric Zemmour to bomb the infamous jihadist hideout area of Molenbeek in Brussels instead of Raqqa, will lead us closer to ISIS’ achieving their objectives of divide-and-conquer. All this without their even having to lift a finger.

From the thousands of daily recruits they had flooding in a few months ago, the Islamic State is now only seeing 50-60 a day. There is a much larger migration flow away from ISIS-controlled territory and towards Europe than vice versa. As the prominent scholar Wael Farouq notes, “migrants come here because of our values of peace, tolerance, and freedom”. The counter-narrative strategy is slowly working. So are escalation and acts of war our only option?

It goes without saying that counter-narrative alone is not going to prevent terrorist attacks. Undoubtedly, intelligence services are foiling more plots than we know. But this is not a new, ISIS-induced phenomenon. Since the events of September 11th 2001, there has been an on-going underground operation against terror that has been filling the cells of Guantanamo. They cannot stop them all, but they are working to keep as many people on the ground as safe as possible in the short-term.

The counter-narrative strategy is a long-term one.. We need to acknowledge that the message of tolerance and non-engagement with ISIS’ demented battle cry goes a long way. We need to keep giving voice to that message, in order to combat their divide-and-conquer strategy. The Europhilanthropics conference showed that our leaders are not as incompetent as they are often portrayed: many of them are trying to target the problem at its source, through a process of intellectual and cultural understanding and debate about these fracture lines that lead to radicalization. Our most recent history lessons have taught us that the short-sighted solution of rushing in with drones, armies, and blanket-bombing the Middle East does not work.

Photo Credits: Lionel Bonaventure/Getty Images