November 18, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Paris Attacks and a Continent on Edge

• The ripples of the horrific November 13 Paris attacks continue to spread across Europe, and the continent is on high alert for further acts of terror

• False alarms—such as the widely-reported but erroneous discovery of an explosive-laden ambulance at a football match in Germany—are among the inevitable aftershocks of an attack on civilians

• The Islamic State seeks to both exploit and exaggerate these aftershocks of fear, with a mixture of legitimate and spurious threats

• Societies suffering from terrorist carnage often make policy decisions based on fear; the compromised ability to respond effectively is yet another injury of a terror attack.


Parts of Europe are currently awash with a flood of real and imagined threats in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. The relatively borderless travel in the EU—a point of justified pride—has become a source of fear, as the Paris plot extends from France to Belgium and beyond. This ‘Schengen Terror’ is so unsettling to the EU because it strikes at the heart of the EU's core concept: common security ensured by common values. From Paris to Molenbeek, Hanover to Lesbos, the geopolitical and social repercussions of the Paris attacks are only just now being felt.

One of the goals of a terrorist attack is the removal of nuance and thoughtful deliberation from societal discussions about how to respond and move forward. Just as firecrackers at a Parisian wedding can cause a panic so soon after gunfire and explosions reverberated through the city, the loudest rhetoric drives the policy discussions to the extremes.

The terror scare at the Hanover football stadium in Germany is a perfect illustration of this toxic mix of fact and fiction. Acts of terror foment fear that does not dissipate, but rather lingers in the public consciousness. A false alarm combined with a reported credible threat against the scheduled match, which German Chancellor Angela Merkel was set to attend. That reports of an explosive-laden ambulance were ultimately in error did not mean the response to cancel the match was wrong. One of the pitfalls of modern counterterrorism efforts is that there are so many ways to be wrong, and only one way to be right. In the immediate aftermath of a terror attack, an entire society is on edge, and prone to pointing to the slightest suspicion as evidence of the ‘next wave.’

Adding to this fear is that the threat in France and the EU stemming from the Paris attacks is not over; there are at least two—and likely more—suspects still at large. Furthermore, there are likely more cells in other locations. The so-called Islamic State has had far too long to plan for these types of attacks, and far too much opportunity for the threat to be limited to an attack on Paris. Too many people have been exposed to the poisonous narrative of the Islamic State—both on-the-ground and over social media—for there not to be further threats. The challenge the EU faces is how to counter this threat without creating more. Terrorism does not respect borders; while the Western world is currently confronting a barrage of threats, acts of terror remain a part of daily existence elsewhere in the world.

The terror most recently witnessed not just in Paris, but also in a host of other cities, like Yola, Nigeria—where a suicide bomber killed over 30—does not have a global solution. Rather, it has countless local solutions, enabled by international intelligence and resource-sharing. Far too many communities are battling what is called a global war on terror without international resources or support. This imbalance in media coverage and political action—and the resentment this imbalance causes—works perfectly for the narrative of hatred and exclusion of groups like the Islamic State. The people of Burj al-Burajneh, Lebanon are just as terrorized as the people of Baghdad, and the disruption of their lives by terror is as profoundly destructive to the social fabric as it is in Paris or New York. That there is a competition for attention in the aftermath of recent terror attacks is a troubling indication that the issue is being handled poorly on many levels.


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