Toeing West’s Terror Line Will Lead Nowhere

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Battle mode France had decided before the attacks to send its largest warship to fight the Islamic State
Battle mode France had decided before the attacks to send its largest warship to fight the Islamic State

Will the Paris terrorist attacks be a “game changer”? Will world leaders finally unite to confront Islamist extremist terrorism in a principled and strategic campaign, and not within the old amoral ‘interests of state’ paradigm, as the flood of rhetoric from world leaders suggests? Will we finally see the nations that “use terrorism as instruments of foreign policy” face international penalties?

Each of these questions can be answered with another: Were past and even worse attacks in other parts of the world, including in some Western countries (the Madrid Train Bombings of 2004 killed 191 and injured over 1,800) game changers? Have world leaders met and committed themselves to wage a unified and coordinated campaign against ‘international terrorism’ for the first time? And when Prime Minister Narendra Modi told leaders at the G-20 Summit that some nations use terrorism as an instrument of state policy, was he divulging some great intelligence secret, a fact the world was not aware of?

All that we are seeing in the wake of the Paris bombings is habitual political grandstanding, and will have roughly the same impact on ‘world powers’ that past events have had — that is, the latest attack, like past attacks, will provide photo ops for ‘world leaders’ and will be harvested for the opportunities they provide to pursue divergent state interests; states will continue to support some sets of terrorists while purporting to fight others, as their own calculus of advantage dictates; and some of the worst state sponsors of terrorism will continue to flourish under the benign neglect of, or active alliance with, Western powers, including the ‘sole surviving superpower’, the USA.

Ajai Sahni | Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi
Ajai Sahni | Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi

The Paris bombings have been described by France as an “act of war”, and President Francois Hollande has declared, “We are going to lead a war which will be pitiless.” Immediate and “massive” bombings have been launched against Islamic State or Daesh targets, using, reports indicate, some ten “fighter jets”. It is, however, not clear how this is different from earlier bombing raids carried out by France against Daesh in the months precedent — but some symbolism was evidently necessary as a salve to public opinion.

One of the remarkable elements in all this is the degree to which the official Western ‘line’ is automatically accepted, in some measure exaggerated, and uncritically projected by the media across the world. It is as if there is no historical memory, no comparative record and no objective standard to measure such incidents.

Just days before the Paris attacks, a Russian passenger airliner was downed over Egypt, purportedly by Daesh, killing 224. Compared to the theatrics of the aftermath in Paris, coverage of this event was quite perfunctory, and no one was speaking of ‘game changers’. And the Western media, by and large, had little compunction in blaming Vladimir Putin’s ‘adventurism’ in Syria for this outcome. There is, however, seething outrage at any suggestion that the Paris attacks could be the consequence of aggressive French (or Western) intervention in Syria. Just a day before the Paris attacks, twin suicide bombings in Beirut killed at least 43; the event produced some fairly lukewarm reportage and commentary.

Another case in point is a similar and immensely dramatic orchestration of sentiment after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris on 7 January, killing 12; between 3 January and 7 January, Boko Haram, another jihadist formation, slaughtered an estimated 2,000 civilians in Baga town in the Nigerian State of Borno, and even among journalists, few would have heard of this event.

Why is it important to highlight such biases in the aftermath of what was unquestionably a cruel tragedy in Paris?

These issues are critical to any objective, reality-based assessment of terrorism and its impact; and consequently to any design of strategies of response. There has been much talk, for instance, of the ‘lessons’ India must learn from Paris, and how the threat of a similar attack in India has abruptly escalated as a result of the ‘Paris model’. But there was no ‘Paris model’ to design the 26/11 Mumbai attacks (indeed, some commentators have, incorrectly, suggested that Paris was ‘modelled’ on the Mumbai attacks). But why does the threat in India escalate because of an incident in Paris, and not because of a passenger plane bombing over Egypt, or carnage in Baga, or slaughter by terrorists at a mall in Nairobi? Is the social, political and economic profile of Paris somehow a closer cousin to comparable indices in India (or other countries who abruptly feel more threatened)? Is France’s communal and cultural demography a mirror of India’s? And does France’s domestic and foreign policies have close correspondence to those of New Delhi?

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