"New" terrorism and vulnerable “soft targets”
Less than two weeks after the crash of Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 in Sinai – reportedly by a bomb put on the plane by ISIL affiliates – the 13 November Paris attacks reminded the world once again of the very real threat of militant extremism both at home and abroad, albeit in a much evolved form.
In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, in which eight gunmen and suicide bombers carried out near-simultaneous strikes throughout the French capital, a wave of fear has rapidly swept across Western cities. With nearly 130 dead, some question as to whether such a tragedy could have been prevented by security agencies, and what larger implications the attacks will have, not only French participation in the US-led coalition against ISIL, but also the return of those French citizens taking part in hostilities with ISIL in Syria and Iraq.
While attacks of comparable scope and breadth have indeed been seen before in Moscow (2002), Madrid (2004), London (2005), and Mumbai (2008), it is the sheer level of carnage – and most particularly the seemingly random nature of that carnage – that has the world so on edge.
Throughout the West, terrorism over the last years has been largely understood as "targeted". So-called “conventional” terrorists, in the minds of many, are ideologues whose violent actions are predicated by a series of tangible demands, or at least those whose violence is directed towards a specific and distinct group of people, be they outspoken cartoonists or Jewish citizens shopping at a kosher supermarket. The attacks of al-Qaeda are typically carried out against political or military targets, traditionally through the use of highly trained international operatives and explicitly technical means, such as explosives or hijacked airliners. It is evident that this perception of modern terrorism has changed drastically to one that is omnipresent and, even by the standards of other established terrorist groups, unjustifiable through the eschatological and nihilistic framework that propels it.
The terrifying scope of the most recent Paris attacks is found in the “soft” nature of the targets – bars, restaurants, a concert hall, and a high-profile soccer match. The level of coordination and the speed with which the attacks took place was startling to the French people and the international community.
Certainly, it is not feasible for a physical security presence to guard all such soft targets throughout entire cities and countries. Likely, such a presence would do little to deter similar attacks. Rather, it is through the implementation of sustainable and cohesive cooperation that preventative measures can take the place of acute reaction. It is this security paradox that empowers the shifting nature of terrorism, and will likely have grave implications for how Western governments and their peoples view such threats domestically.
The January attack against the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper in Paris ushered a wave of solidarity and unity, both in praise of free speech and against the threat of violent extremism. As a result of the sheer scope of carnage following the November attacks, however, it is reasonable to suspect that the goal of the terrorists in spreading fear and driving a wedge between civil society has already been met.