The Paris Attack and Terrorism’s Next Frontier

The Sydney and Paris attacks are manifestations of the long-predicted lone wolf threat posed by militant Islamism. Unfortunately, there will be more of these kind of attacks to come. In terms of understanding the threat, the evolution of pursuing “jihad” from a group basis to a focus on so-called “individual jihad” is a two-edged sword. In fact, the balance between group-based terrorism and encouraging lone wolf attacks is a matter of considerable debate in leadership levels of Islamist terrorists. A consensus in extremist circles seems to be forming around the idea that the “global jihad” sparked by al-Qaeda’s attack on America on 9/11 is best “managed” by a non-hierarchical approach that encourages local action, undertaken by independent groups or individuals..

Whether an attack is sponsored by a core group or undertaken by individuals, the purpose is the same: to keep pressure on the global secular system, with an eye towards destroying it. The advantage of encouraging lone wolf attacks is that they are non-linear, random, and hard to prevent. Such attacks encourage other extremists to follow suit, creating a cycle of violence that is more akin to a contagion, than a classical terrorist campaign.

It would be easy to suggest that lone wolf attacks are inherently unpredictable, but that may be an over-generalization. In the cases of Sydney and Paris, the authorities reportedly were well aware of the danger the perpetrators potentially posed. Then the question is, why didn’t they do anything about it? The attacks revealed that the very values of open societies that democratic states are trying to preserve are being used as a shield by bad actors to lie in wait undisturbed, until they seize an opportunity to act on their extreme convictions.

The Western world has been slow to come to the grips with the reality that counter-terrorism policies and barriers can only go so far in protecting its citizenry. The deeper question is how far should the state go in tolerating militant extremism that advocates violence against citizens, and the state? Under what circumstances should the right to free speech be curtailed, when a citizen advocates hate, violence, or the overthrow of the government? When does an individual become such a threat to the state, that it should trigger intrusive investigative or surveillance measures? Why should someone be allowed to have a right to return, or continue to hold a passport, if that person has transferred his or her allegiance to ISIS in Syria or Iraq?

As callous as it sounds, pin prick attacks that kill small numbers of people will in all likelihood never reach a threshold where they challenge the viability of the state. In this context, the goal of militant Islam is to overthrow the global secular system, both in the “near” and “far” battlefield, as al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri has written. This basic goal of Sunni extremism is a shared vision of all Sunni extremist groups and factions, most recently by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Their fundamental interpretation of Islam excludes any prospect of compromise with the West, or with mainstream Islam. Their fight is to the death, a winner take all strategy.

In their own terms, as a matter of strategy, the question then is whether and how individual jihad can help spark a global revolution.

Terrorism on the scale of Paris, London, Madrid, Sydney, Istanbul, Ottawa, Boston, or Bali, seems more likely to provoke a determined Western response to do what is necessary to eradicate the threat of militant Islam, than lead to the destruction of the status quo. Meanwhile, small, lone wolf attacks will likely have the effect of waking up the sleeping giant, and forcing states to recognize the real nature of the problem they confront.

Although Sunni militants will always find opportunities to carry out their cowardly deeds, the efficacy of terrorism to achieve what the Islamists want most dearly is in serious question, at this point in history. The Arab spring, and resulting crackdown on extremist dissent by the political elite in the Arab world, is arguably of greater relevance in predicting the future of the Arab world, than the threat of Sunni-inspired terrorism. People have discovered that the future lies in their hands, to the extent they are willing to make their views and grievances known.

Which takes us to the most controversial, and thus important consideration in assessing the implications of the tragedy in Paris.

How will the Islamic world respond to Paris?

Condemnation of the attack is to be expected, but it does not go far enough. It rings hollow to call this phenomenon an aberration within Islam. Too many people equate Islamic extremism with Christian extremism, which is an absurd comparison. Sunni terrorism is a global movement. States can implement effective counterterrorism measures to reduce the threat, but it will not eliminate it. Mainstream Islam has a responsibility to stamp out this malignancy within the religion. Arab states have condemned the attack, but the authorities need to respond to the challenge that militant Sunni extremism poses to the credibility of their faith. 

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About the Author(s)

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen

Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, former Director of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the Department of Energy, former Chief of the Europe Division in the Directorate of Operations, former Chief of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Department, Counterterrorism Center.