A war of character

In Europe's war of character against terrorism, level-headed circumspection will serve better than a rush to retaliate and demonise

“War,” says President Francois Hollande, and so too says Joachim Gauck, Germany's president.

Islamic State wants us Europeans to accept that there is war, here in Europe, as Europeans have already entered Islamic State’s own war in Iraq and Syria. From their point of view, war has be ongoing for some time. From their point of view, perhaps it is best if the West finally puts boots on the ground in the Middle East and mire themselves in the kind of war Islamic State knows how to conduct.

Islamic State want their attack in Paris to lead to a European reaction like Bush's in 2001: pitched battles in the Middle East; repression of anyone in Europe who may be suspicious; the antagonisation of anyone and anything Islamic (remember Guantanamo!), to drive ever more volunteers to their side.

War, though, as we traditionally understand it, is different from what happened in Paris. We do not have the Syrian war in Europe, yet. What we have, so far, are terrorist attacks, the kind of attack that open societies are particularly vulnerable to.

So far, we have been able to prevent worse ones, and we should hope we will continue to been able to do so, but it is not a given that we can. There are many options for Islamic State to get its people into Europe to commit suicide attacks. Difficult as it is to have terrorists take the long and uncertain road via Greece and the Balkans, they will surely try to use the refugee route.

But the refugee crisis is not at the heart of the terrorist threat. The days of uncontrolled influx have, in any case, been brief. Europeans are now searching for a balanced EU approach to deal with tens of thousands fleeing the terror in the Middle East, and even though in real terms the problem is much less severe than, for example, the debt crisis, it lends itself much more to the growth of populism than complicated financial matters that people more readily leave to experts. So the danger and temptation is that people will intertwine anti-refugee arguments with anti-terrorism ones. Unbundling these arguments is now an enormous second challenge beside the security one: tens of thousands flee the terror in the Middle East and have suffered more than we have. The same terror threatens us in Europe; resolving the security challenge to us will enable the refugees return to their homes.

The more dangerous approach is what Islamic State is now focusing on: using homegrown European kids, in their teens or early twenties, who are enticed to join Islamic State, before returning home, well-trained and armed, with the will to kill and die. They know how to blend into everyday life in Europe without attracting attention. A day before the Paris massacre such a kid was captured by police in southern Germany, in a rented car full of weapons, with a map inside showing a parking lot in Paris as his destination. 

The core threat of how Islamic State carries the war to Europe is thus a societal one, and one with a double edge. They focus on recruiting supporters from within our societies with a deadly, pseudo-religious ideology. In so doing, they shake our own belief in our enlightenment values. To defend ourselves we might fall into the same trap as the United States did in 2001: compromising our values, becoming unsure of how to defend them and further entangling ourselves in the struggle for the emancipation of Middle Eastern societies.

Europe is at war– a war of a character we have not known before. We need to choose our strategies with level-headed circumspection.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Council Member & Former Senior Advisor to the Asia & China programme

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