The Islamic State (ISIS, or Daesh in Arabic) either is using a good public relations firm or has its own agents to choose telling symbols and timing for its actions. Within a short time period, the terrorist teams have destroyed a Russian plane with tourists returning from Egypt, badly damaged a Hezbollah center in Lebanon, and attacked symbolic sites in Paris on a Friday the 13th.
Three symbolic sites in Paris were chosen by a well-coordinated team of some 12 active agents and an unknown number of “helpers.” Eight of the ISIS men had explosive belts and were prepared to die to make their motives clear.
The first attack was at the Stade de France, the main sports stadium on the edge of Paris. French President Francois Hollande and his guests joined some 80,000 spectators to watch a football (soccer) match between the national French and German teams. A half hour after the match started, three ISIS agents blew themselves up just outside the stadium. They killed themselves and one person who was passing by.
Had they wanted to kill more people, they could have used their explosives an hour earlier when the street was full of spectators lined up to enter the stadium. But the symbolic strength of the action is that no one noticed the explosions and the football match went on normally. The French President had security agents with him who were informed of events, and he left at half-time. The symbol, however, is clear and goes back to the decline of the Roman Empire. As the Empire declines and will soon be replaced, the Emperors provide the people with bread and circuses to keep them happy. Thus, while the war is on, the French emperor watches a football match.
The second symbolic attack was in a heavily populated part of Paris. The French equivalent of a “Thank God It's Friday” drink is a whole meal with friends or co-workers at a restaurant. This past Friday was particularly warm for the season, and a good number of people were eating outside at sidewalk tables. At least four ISIS agents in two rented black cars drove down a restaurant-heavy street shooting from the car. People at an Asian and an Italian restaurant in particular were killed or wounded, but shots were fired at other restaurants and cafés along the street.
Again, the message is clear. “A war is on, people are hungry, and you are sitting around eating and drinking –a sign of your decadence.” Since the French government began its air attacks on ISIS in Iraq, ISIS websites have been calling Paris “the capital of prostitution and obscenity.”
The third attack, carried out at about the same time as the others, was on a popular music concert hall, the Bataclan. Though there is music in the Islamic world, for reasons I do not understand the Taliban and ISIS consider music forbidden. The concert at the Bataclan on Friday was sold out; some 1,500 persons had come to hear a California Rock group appropriately named Eagles of Death Metal.
Halfway through the concert, three ISIS agents moved into the music pit below the stage and started shooting, saying that the audience were hostages. The section of the French police trained to deal with hostage taking quickly got into phone contact with the ISIS argents. The police became convinced that negotiations were not possible and started to move in. Two of the ISIS group used their explosive belts, killing themselves and others. The third ISIS member was shot by the police.
The French government's reaction was swift. President Hollande had gone directly from the sports stadium to the Ministry of the Interior, which is responsible for police and security forces. Hollande quickly made a televised statement saying that the attacks were “an act of war that was committed by a terrorist army, a jihadist army, Daesh.” A State of Emergency has been proclaimed, and police and the military have been placed on alert.
Since the possibility of terrorism has been on the political agenda for some time, there was already an alert status. The State of Emergency is unlikely to change much, but it gives the police some additional powers to close off sensitive areas, to re-establish controls at the frontiers and to move the military from their home base toward Paris.
There are three longer-term challenges where choices must be made, choices made more complex by the attacks:
The French government host decided to hold the Paris climate summit popularly called COP 21 as planned. Most of the foreign government leaders planning to attend will probably still do so, but security considerations are likely to play a large role in practice. In addition to government leaders, many NGO representatives were planning to be in Paris for parallel conferences. There is also a “Climate Pilgrimage” underway with a large number of people on foot or on bikes planning to come to Paris during COP21. Security considerations would have been important in any case, but now they are likely to be more visible.
2) Regional elections December 6 and 13
The government said France’s elections for regional parliaments would be maintained while hoping that campaigns will not lessen the spirit of national unity manifested after the attacks.
In France, most elections are in two segments: a first segment in which several political parties are present and a final round with only two or three parties who have obtained a set percentage of the vote. These December elections are particularly complex as the number of regions has been reduced and re-designed. People will be voting for the first time in these new regions, and many of the political figures running are new. Additionally, the far-right National Front Party is gaining strength, stressing unemployment and the increased danger from “foreigners,” especially Muslims. The Paris attacks may increase the National Front vote.
3) Syria and Iraq
The Paris attacks have increased public awareness of the conflicts in the wider Middle East and their possible impact on the domestic scene. The attacks build on awareness due to massive refugee flows to Europe since July. The responses of the European governments have been very divided. At the popular level, all sorts of fears have been expressed. NGOs dealing with refugees have not been able to cope with the large number of persons coming in a short time period. Obviously there needs to be a reduction in armed violence, hopefully a cease-fire and good faith negotiations in the Syria-Iraq conflict, in Yemen, in Libya, in Lebanon, and Israel-Palestine. The Paris attacks have the merit of highlighting in a cruel light the challenges faced by governments and those of us who are in non-governmental conflict resolution efforts.