Last week’s terrorist attacks, the big picture

The unfolding news of the most recent terrorist attacks against humanity

Attacks in Paris, Beirut and other recent terrorist crimes against humanity

Like millions of people on the planet, I was transfixed by the unfolding news of ISIS terrorist attacks in Paris last week. There’s no minimizing the horror and outrage we all felt. Unfortunately, most of us were less aware of the savage attack in Beirut that also killed scores of civilians. Clearly, ISIS/ISIL bringing down the Russian Airliner coming out of Egypt on October 31 was just a precursor to last week’s attacks.

The roots of terror and terrorist strategy

Targeting civilians has been a standard military practice since the 20th century, e.g., carpet bombing of major cities in WW II, including the German blitz of London, and subsequent U.S. nuclear attacks of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The objective in those cases was to demoralize, weaken and defeat the enemy. It worked, at least for the Allies. Certainly, it shortened the length of that war. –Was WW II terrorism on an epic scale? Many say yes.

Group-based brutality, as opposed to terrorism, has been endemic to our species since the dawn of time, with members of other tribes, nations or religion often considered less than human and therefore legitimate targets of murder, even extermination.

Modern terrorism

By contrast, modern terrorist strategy operates on a smaller scale with a different–insidiously toxic–agenda. That basic paradigm is simple enough, though generally not well understood. I’m not sure why; terrorist groups have repeatedly articulated their objectives.

  • First, they attack (generally) soft targets, killing as many civilians as possible not only to incite outrage but to get the enemy government to overreact, thereby draining them of financial resources in long, drawn out military campaigns.
  • Second, ensuing military action by the nation that has been attacked inevitably involves ‘collateral damage’–i.e., the killing of innocent native civilians, a decimated infrastructure, soaring unemployment and a host of other social implosions that radicalize the population, especially young men, into joining the terrorist cause. —Osama bin Laden considered his 9/11 attacks a success beyond his wildest dreams, less because of damage to NYC and Washington DC than what he saw as the overreaction of the U.S. government—especially in Iraq. This, he knew, would spread his terrorist ideology among alienated Muslim youth like a virus. He was right.

Different variations of this scenario have played out since the mid–1900s. For example, in the 1950’s Algeria gained its independence from France because the French military didn’t know how to fight the anti-colonial insurgency there. Same for Vietnam, beginning with the French and later, the U.S.

More recently, the U.S. invasion of Iraq less than two years after 9/11 created a quagmire and power vacuum that ISIS/ISIL—originating in neighboring Syria—has filled with little resistance, except for the Kurds to the north.

We need effective counter strategies

Nihilistic ISIS has no interest in negotiating with us. Their barbarity—whether acted out in Europe, the Middle East, or other parts of the world, must be quelled. But how?

The underlying social dynamic is clear. Europe hasn’t done well at integrating Muslims and other minorities into their mainstream societies. This has resulted in limited economic opportunity for increasingly alienated youth. Case in point—Malbeek, Belgium—epicenter for the planning of the Paris attacks-has a 40% unemployment rate.

In the Middle East, besides widespread anti-U.S., anti-European sentiment resulting from the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and ineffective strategies in Syria, other factors come into play. Among them—the growing regional civil war between Islam’s two primary branches, Sunni and Shia.

Tech-based challenges and countermeasures

The newly declared ‘war’ against ISIS is one that will play out on many fronts. Encrypted messaging platforms like WhatsApp reportedly concealed communications between terrorists planning last Friday’s Paris attacks. That story is slowly unfolding, but full details may never be revealed given the need of European Security Agencies and DHS—(our) Department of Homeland Security to conceal whatever anti encryption capabilities they may have.

In the next Insights article, I’ll explore this challenge and an emerging array of new technologies that may help counter future attacks.