Bombs, Bullets and Bytes: Putin’s challenge

Aleppo is rubble. Men, women and children are torn apart limb by limb as bombs are dropped by Assad’s and Putin’s planes. Is that what it took for the West to come to the brutal realisation that it can’t manage Russia in Syria? Cynically speaking, the West lost Syria a while ago. Ever since President Obama drew that meaningless red line against chemical weapons, Putin knew Syria was his for the taking. Talks of cooperating with Russia in Syria and building an anti-ISIS alliance might have been genuine but they were self-deceiving. It was an attempt to use an enemy (ISIS) that unites us. But the proverb “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” ain’t enough. It cannot gloss over the divergence of core interests in Syria between Russia and the West.

The outrage of the international community now calls for action. Indiscriminate bombing of civilians cannot be left unanswered. But – woefully – there aren’t many potent options available in Syria it seems. Establish a no-fly zone? How would that work? Would the West really be prepared to shoot down Russian planes? Not a chance. There might have been a time when this option could have been feasible but its chances are gone. Provide Syrian rebels with anti-aircraft weaponry? These weapons might just end up in ISIS’ hands. Another set of sanctions against Russia? At first look a good idea. So far, however, there’s no united European front for this. The Russia-smitten Social-Democrats in Germany are against as are other EU Member States. The Conclusions of the EU Foreign Ministers of today (18 October 2016) don’t raise sanctions (that’s for the Heads of States and Governments to discuss this week) and they also show a reluctance to name Russia directly – instead it’s packed under the rubric of Syria and its “allies”. Sanctions imposed ideally also ought to be tied to demands. What would those be? Stop bombing Aleppo? They can easily do so when it’s fallen – would the sanctions then be lifted? Or bring those responsible to the International Criminal Court? Forget about it. Don’t get me wrong – sanctions would be symbolically important but it would be unclear how to proceed with them. Russia has the upper hand in Syria. It can escalate and de-escalate the situation as it sees fit. Just now it has said that it will have an 8-hour “humanitarian pause” on Thursday. This strategy of escalate/de-escalate allows the Kremlin to throw European decision-making off guard and tests internal Western cohesion.

So maybe the table of options needs to be widened to areas where we are strong and have influence. Merkel could – apart from floating sanctions – announce that Nord Stream 2 is a no-go. Germany could abandon its selfish rejection to join Central and Eastern European countries in an energy solidarity cluster. The EU’s anti-trust watchdog could weaken Gazprom’s pricing power in Eastern Europe. Murky Russian financial networks in the EU could be further examined and action considered, etc.

Simultaneously, the European Union also needs to dramatically step up its game when it comes to cyber-defence. Putin puts pressure externally and internally. He uses bombs in Syria, bullets in Ukraine and bytes in the West. Russia’s information warfare has entered a new level. Interfering in elections with cyber attacks against the Democratic National Committee and feeding information to Wikileaks, stoking up societal divisions in Europe via disinformation such as the German case of “Lisa”, and so on. Europe should prepare itself. Elections will take place in Germany and France in 2017 – besides promoting far-right parties via funding and other means, disinformation can play a role here too.

We have to strengthen our internal resilience and social cohesion. Vice-President Joe Biden came out saying that the US could engage in a reciprocal cyber attack by, for example, attaining and publishing information showing the hidden (corrupt) wealth of Putin. But again, this would be in an area where influence is limited. Putin squashes the domestic media – only few would dare put such stories out at the risk of their own life. We cannot play Putin’s game – we must play our own.

Is Europe falling into the ISIS playbook?

Expressions of unity, strength and support followed the atrocious attack against the French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo. Europe’s political leaders marched together, millions of people demonstrated solidarity declaring Je suis Charlie. Instead of bringing France to her knees as the terrorists had hoped, they had brought France to her feet. Citizens all across Europe, particularly in France, rose to the occasion countering hatred with hope and confidence. But this is changing and our communication strategies and narrative to counter ISIS are partly to blame.

From Paris and Brussels to Nice and Würzburg, that hope and confidence is fading. The frequency and horror of these terrorist attacks has continuously hammered away at society. When one person can do so much damage at such public places, everybody feels affected and threatened. Hate is starting to gain on hope. A spectre of hate crime and counter-attacks against Muslim communities is emerging. A European Kristallnacht against Muslims is no longer an unthinkable scenario.

In France, Muslims have been harassed at the Nice commemoration and some citizens have vented their anger by spitting and throwing trash on the spot where the lone-wolf terrorist, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, had been shot. Patrick Calvar, France’s domestic intelligence chief, has recently told a closed-door parliamentary hearing that there will soon be “a confrontation between the extreme right and the Muslim world…one or two more attacks, and it will happen”. In Germany, the country that proudly stood for welcoming refugees, more than 200 refugee homes have been burned or otherwise attacked over the last year. In the United Kingdom, there had been more than 3.000 allegations of hate crime in the weeks of its Brexit referendum as populists, such as Nigel Farage, blamed foreigners for Britain’s woes.

A latest Pew survey of ten EU Member States published a few days prior to the attack in Nice, substantiates this worrying trend. Six in ten EU Member States have an unfavourable view of Muslims. In eight out of ten more than half of the respondents believe refugees increase the probability of a terrorist attack. And in seven out of ten EU Member States, views towards Muslims have become more unfavourable compared to last year. A median of only 18 per cent believe that ethnic, cultural and ethnic diversity is a benefit to their country. Each new attack is likely to add to these developments.

Our politics are failing. Each new attack questions the ability of the political establishment to deal with terrorism, in turn strengthening far-right political parties such as the Front National or the Alternative für Deutschland. EU Member States have been unable to agree to a permanent effort-sharing system for dealing with the refugee influx, again sending a certain message of helplessness.

Communication strategies are particularly using a war rhetoric, which tends to feed fear and feelings of insecurity, worsening the situation. President Hollande has called the November 2015 attack an “act of war” and after Nice France’s Minister of the Interior, Bernard Cazeneuve, called on all “patriotic citizens” to join the reserve police force. Asking citizens to fill the ranks of the police, does not exactly inspire confidence.

All of this, however, can tear at the very social fabric of society. It plays directly into the strategy of Islamic State. Europe and especially France are in danger of falling into the ISIS game plan. By following a rhetoric that emphasises a war with Islamic State and allows a picture of France under siege and the enemy at the European gates to arise, feelings of insecurity persist and contempt towards Muslim communities increases. It is that very contempt that feeds the ISIS narrative. This downward spiral, where only Islamic State can benefit, must be broken.

European governments shouldn’t allow each successful lone-wolf terrorist attack to be claimed as an ISIS victory. A pattern is emerging that many of these lone-wolf perpetrators were emotionally unstable, disconnected from society, extremely narcissistic and looking for a greater purpose in their life. As asserted by Professor Olivier Roy, a leading expert on political Islam, many of these lone-wolf perpetrators were petty criminals that didn’t undergo a radicalisation of Islam but rather an Islamisation of radicality. They are already drawn to radicalism and Islamic State offers them a heroic narrative and purpose to go with it. In the words of Robert Pape, founding director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, ISIS makes “an appeal to the individual’s sense of self” and “let’s angry men with oversize egos identify with the group…and eventually use the tool kit of Islamic State to carry out their own violent agendas”. With this interpretation in mind, the lone-wolf acts of terror shouldn’t be seen as part of a war with ISIS nor primarily focus on Islam. Mr Pape, for example, notes how a US campaign to paint Islamic State as un-Islamic was particularly unsuccessful. Instead, it must perforate the “hero’s image” and make it unattractive by showing that these lone-wolf perpetrators are nothing more but unhinged petty criminals that won’t be remembered in posterity. Such a narrative would have a dual benefit of deterring future potential lone-wolf terrorists while simultaneously not putting religion front and centre thereby not increasing fears in society about Muslim communities.

Europe is walking down a slippery slope of populism and increasing xenophobia. The focus on fighting Islamic State and using war-like rhetoric is feeding this trend. Of course ISIS must be fought but we shouldn’t allow each terrorist attack to be claimed by ISIS or frame it into the narrative of ISIS – it makes this wretched organisation bigger than it is. A new narrative should emerge. Nice shouldn’t be a reminder of Islamic State. It should be a reminder of why Bastille Day is celebrated – because it represents the spirit of unity, the rights of man and woman, of liberté, egalité, fraternité.

Terror on Bastille Day

For months we have been living on edge. We’ve had the Paris attacks, the Brussels bombings, the San Bernadino attack, the Orlando nightclub shooting, the Istanbul airport attacks. Numerous terrorist warnings had been made during the European Football Championship. In Brussels and I’m sure elsewhere, concerns had been aired, security had been stepped up; it was recommended not to attend large public gatherings.

Then Euro 2016 finished. Holidays were about to start. French President Hollande declared that the state of emergency, which had been enacted following the heinous Paris attacks in November 2015, would be lifted end of July. And then it happened. Again. In Nice, the Promenade des Anglais that had filled for the celebrations of Bastille Day on 14 July, turned into a living nightmare. More than 80 men, women and children killed. More than 200 people injured. Families torn apart, lives and limbs lost as Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel drove a truck through the crowds.

How does one begin to comprehend this act? The sheer shift from celebration to chaos, from enjoying to surviving the night. Similar to the Paris attacks, it was a strike during ones night-out where anybody could have been the target. It was a strike during Bastille Day where France celebrates its unity, its revolution, its declaration of the Rights of Man, its very liberté, egalité, fraternité. And similar to Orlando, it was committed by a single man. A single man that had not been particularly known by intelligence officials. A petty criminal who had no sign of radicalisation.

It’s the awful singularity that gives this horrendous night even more worrying thoughts. It’s what Thomas Friedman called the growing power of one. One person with a truck or an assault rifle. One person with a home-made suicide belt. One person with biochemical or radioactive material. One person with a virus that could spread to a pandemic. How do you protect against that one person? How can a state protect society against a single individual? And that without withering away the very freedoms of society.

And it’s the awful singularity that makes one also wonder, how many more attacks might yet be to come? There are undoubtedly a range of people out there – be they returned ISIS fighters, radicalised youth, or petty criminals looking for a purpose – that are daydreaming with raising havoc. Many might still be held back by some sort of social norms, inner angst, fear for life. But will this last? Or will the regularity of such horrendous acts slowly wither away these last barriers, embolden them, and transform their thoughts into action as they see others do.

And when these people aren’t known as radicalised terrorists, what gives them the underlying ideological drive to destroy? How do we understand the killers’ minds? A pattern seems to emerge of small-time criminals looking for a purpose and an audience. The Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism might be on to something when they write that it’s not Islamic radicalisation via ISIS itself that just induces these young men – who have not been particularly devout – to terror but the fact that ISIS appeals to these young men’s self-worth. Islamic State makes them heroes in a narrative at a time when they are most likely in a state where they see no larger purpose to pursue.

Last, the events further hammer away at society. They increase fear and hatred and racism and divisions. I’m concerned of how far-right Marine Le Pen might gain from such a situation with the French Presidential elections less than a year away. And I’m concerned how Donald Trump might become a more realistic option for the White House. In crises, people usually tend to look for stability, leaders with experience, something or someone they know. But this time it feels different. With the world in flames, establishment politicians are losing credibility and there seems to be a gravitation towards tough-talking, non-conformist leaders. Contexts and situations of course differ from country to country but what seemed a joke in the US presidential elections is turning into a frightening possibility. And the more crises the world experiences, the more Trump might benefit from his isolationist “batten-down-the-hatches”, build-a-wall approach, which stands in stark contrast to Hillary Clinton, the internationalist and former Secretary of State. The state of the world will undoubtedly be used against her by the Trumpians.

So much pain and so many questions left unanswered. Yet, as we mourn the losses at Nice and our thoughts are with the families torn apart, the spirit of Bastille Day – of unity, the rights of man, of liberté, egalité, fraternité – should continue to ring forth.