This article was first published by . It is co-authored by Amb. Daniel Benjamin, director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College and fmr. coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department.
As the cries of “Je suis Charlie” subside, two facts about the terrorist attacks in Paris stand out. First, every aspect of the response to the violence at the satirical magazine and the Hyper Cacher market has been outsized and extraordinary: the 3.7 million people who turned out to march against the violence, the unprecedented deployment of 10,000 French troops to secure Jewish institutions and even the 3 million-copy run of the latest edition of Charlie Hebdo. On the other hand, as the details of the attack have emerged, it has become clear that this kind of violence represents the new normal in jihadist terrorism.
Whether we look at the recent incidents in Paris, Ottawa or Sydney, there are clear similarities. Low-tech assaults and hostage-takings, these operations are carried out by local militants with little direct involvement from a major jihadist organization. Despite al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s claiming responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo killings, the group’s role appears confined to drawing the bullseye on the magazine in its online publication Inspire, and perhaps giving the Kouachi brothers some training and money several years ago. These incidents have not involved spectacular suicide bombings or complex assaults on massive targets like Heathrow Airport or Wall Street. They have all claimed comparatively low numbers of casualties.
Dealing with the problem of self-starter, low-end terror will challenge Western governments and publics for several reasons: intractable conflicts outside the borders of the affected countries that are motivating extremists, the socio-economic problems that are the backdrop for this militancy, the difficulty of identifying potential attackers and low public tolerance for violence.
The spike in the frequency of attacks has been driven in part by the excitement of radical Islamists in the wake of ISIL’s successes in capturing and holding territory in Iraq and Syria and the group’s effort to create an independent caliphate. After almost a decade and a half of setbacks to al Qaeda, ISIL’s capture of Mosul and control of territory from outside Aleppo to Ramadi has provided extremists with a powerful sense that history is turning their way.
The perpetrators themselves have overwhelmingly not been returned foreign fighters. They have been extremists who want to be part of the action, but at home. The recent shootout in Verviers in Belgium, in which returnees from Syria are said to have been involved, may indicate that the foreign fighter challenge is nearer than many had previously thought. But right now, the greater threat comes from those who seek to piggyback on the ISIL phenomenon but haven’t been recruited by the group.
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