It is an entirely understandable reaction to the horror of the terrorist attacks in Paris to want to respond by smashing the enemy. Sadly we know from the reaction to 9/11 and the war on terror that when that understandable reaction leads to torture and the indiscriminate killing of civilians it is hugely counter-productive and throws oil on the terrorists fire. It is always worth remembering that Al Qaeda and now ISIS launch these barbarous attacks precisely because they want to provoke an unrestrained reaction.
They also want to provoke division and a racist or islamaphobic backlash against ethnic and religious minorities in Western countries. So congratulations to the dimwits at The Sun and their fellow travellers for helping the terrorists. As former ISIS hostage Nicholas Henin wrote, “they will be heartened by every sign of overreaction, of division, of fear, of racism, of xenophobia; they will be drawn to any examples of ugliness on social media.”
It seems that our security agencies have again failed to sustain physical surveillance on known potential terrorists. It is a common thread through most of the major terrorist attacks in the West from Paris to Madrid to London to Boston. Each time we see the smokescreen about mass electronic surveillance used to deflect attention to the failure to sustain lawful targeted surveillance. No doubt the security agencies need more resources, but it would help if there was some confidence they would spend them wisely. See also this brilliant editorial from the New York Times.
And lack of trust in the security agencies is a serious security problem for all of us. The most effective counter-terrorism strategy depends on engaging the support of the public in the communities where terrorists are recruited and operate. George Osborne has announced more funding to recruit people to the security services, but the challenge will be to recruit enough talented people with the right language skills and backgrounds to be effective in gathering intelligence. A serious obstacle in this endeavour is the legacy of distrust borne of those same agencies involvement in torture and rendition.
Paul Mason wrote about, “What would the world look like if we defeated ISIS?” Which was not a bad question to start from. The gap in his article was the need to engage Syrians and Iraqis in any solution. We could do worse than looking to Tunisia for inspiration. There is no doubt that democratic progress there is still fragile, but they have faced their own terrorist attacks precisely because they present a model which is the greatest threat to ISIS. Democracy, human rights, the rule of law, some hope of economic progress for the many and not just the few, these are the ideas and values which can defeat the violent extremists. It was great to see Tunisian Civil Society awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but it seems most of us are not yet interested enough in building peace to pay serious attention to their example.