The Paris attacks should not, however, be seen primarily as acts of revenge from a distinctly twisted crew, even though one of the murderers reportedly shouted, “You killed our brothers in Syria and now we are here.” Instead, they were clearly acts of calculated provocation meant to reshape our world in grim ways. Worse yet, their effectiveness was pre-guaranteed because, as has been true since 9/11, the leaders of such terror groups, starting with Osama bin Laden, have grasped the dynamics of our world, of what makes us tick and especially what provokes us into our own barbarous acts, so much better than our leaders, our militaries, or our national security states have understood them (or, for that matter, themselves).
Here in a nutshell is what bin Laden grasped before 9/11: with modest millions of dollars and a relatively small number of followers, he and his movement couldn’t hope to create the world of their fervid dreams. If, however, he could lure the planet’s “sole superpower” into stepping into his universe, military first, it would change everything and so do his work for him. And indeed (see: invasion of Afghanistan, invasion of Iraq), an operation mounted for an estimated $400,000 to $500,000, using 19 dedicated (mostly Saudi) followers armed only with paper cutters, did just that.
And it’s never stopped since because, just as bin Laden dreamed, Washington helped loose al-Qaeda and its successor outfits from the constraints of a more organized, controlled world. In these last 14 years of failed wars and conflicts of every sort, American military power, aided and abetted by the Saudis, the British, the French, and other countries on a case-by-case basis, essentially fractured the Greater Middle East. It helped create five failed states (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen), worlds in which terror groups could thrive and in the chaos of which they could attract ever more recruits.
Wiping Out the Gray Zones
Think of the Islamic State and various al-Qaeda crews as having developed (to steal a term from commentator John Feffer) “splinterlands” strategies. To continue to grow, they need the U.S. and its allies to lend them an eternally destructive hand to further smash the worlds around them. So in response to the Paris attacks, French President Francois Hollande’s statement that “we will lead a war which will be pitiless” was just what the terror doctor ordered, as was the growing pressure in Washington for a “big military response” to Paris. The first French reprisal air strikes against IS’s Syrian “capital,” Raqqa, were indeed launched within two days.
All of this is like manna from heaven for the Islamic State, the more “pitiless” the better. After all, that group’s goal, as they write in their magazine and online, is “the extinction of the gray zone” in our world. In other words, they seek the sharpening of distinctions everywhere, which means the opening of abysses where complexity and interaction once existed. Their dream is to live in a black-and-white world of utter religious and political clarity (and calamity), while engaging in what American pundits like to term a “clash of civilizations.” And — what a joy for the Islamic State! — Republican presidential candidates are already responding to the Paris attacks, as Marco Rubio did, by calling for just such “a civilizational conflict with radical Islam.” As he put it, “This is not a grievance-based conflict. This is a clash of civilizations… And either they win, or we win.” Jeb Bush similarly responded: “This is an organized effort to destroy Western civilization and we need to lead in this regard.” The answer, of course, is “war.” Various Republican candidates are also now calling for only accepting Syrian Christians as refugees here. You can’t be more black and white than that.
In the European context and with the destruction of those “gray zones” in mind, the Paris attacks should also be considered the Islamic State’s first foray into the politics of the 2017 French presidential campaign. Think of those mass killings as a wholehearted endorsement of the extremist candidate Marine le Pen, whose poll numbers were already on the rise even before the attacks, and her anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant National Front Party. She is now, in effect, IS’s chosen candidate, the one most likely to go after gray zones. In the process, of course, pressure on France’s large, increasingly isolated Muslim population will only increase.
Such attacks are guaranteed to put wind in the already billowing sails of far right-wing parties all across Europe. It should, for instance, have come as no surprise that, in the wake of the Paris attacks, Konrad Szymanski, the European affairs minister for Poland’s new far-right government, almost instantly declared his country unlikely to abide by recently negotiated European Union (EU) quotas on accepting refugees from the Greater Middle East. And we’re only going to see more of this in the post-Paris world. With the assistance of IS and other jihadist groups, the elimination of such gray areas in Europe could, in the end, help crack the EU open, while pushing France’s Muslims into an even worse situation, which would, of course, mean more potential recruits for groups like the Islamic State.