The dreadful events that occurred last Friday in Paris remind us that the Islamic State, but also al Qaeda and other jihadist movement still pose a major threat. They’ve just proved once again they can still hit us whenever and wherever they decide to. It also confirms the jihadist shift in operations: the prevalence for soft targets. The problem with soft target attacks is they don’t have the same strategic impact of a 9/11-style attack. Unless you speed up the frequency of such attacks or you kill a horrendous number of people.
This is the “propaganda of the deed” to create hysteria that transcends the immediate impact of their attacks by drawing other people into the trauma of their attacks as vicarious victims. The goal is to maximise the social and psychological impact of physical efforts, the terrorists having in fact more interest for the living than the dead.
Those people who decide to “go jihad” do pose a threat. While some, perhaps even most, of these jihadist operatives will be caught before they operate, some inevitably will succeed. There undoubtedly are such people — both transnational and home grown operatives — in Europe right now. That is a tactical reality.
As long as the ideology of jihadism exists and young people embrace the ideology of attacking us, they will pose a threat. Whatever actions we take, those measures will always contain gaps. With the very open nature of our societies, we cannot hermetically seal borders to prevent terrorist operatives from entering. They will always be able to reach Europe illegally, slipping across the border. This is not to forget that most of the jihadists who have been committed in terrorist attacks in France for years were French citizens.
Another tactical reality is that we simply cannot protect every potential target. While extended security measures have helped authorities to successfully prevent attacks on high-value targets, there are simply far too many potential targets to protect them all. We can reinforce security forces and instruct them to protect every bridge, power plant, dam and mass-transit system, etc. But the reality on the ground is there are not nearly enough resources to protect them all, much less every shopping mall, museums, religious premises, football game or other potential soft target where people concentrate.
Another tactical consideration is the ease with which an attack can be conducted. Like the recent tragic attacks that occurred in Paris few days ago have sadly demonstrated, it is not difficult to kill people. In fact, the jihadists killed more people with handguns in Paris than those who perpetrated the sophisticated bomb attacks in London 2005.
Given this reality and the fact that jihadists are committed to performing attacks — and are willing to die in the process — it is really rather surprising that we have not seen more successful jihadist attacks.
We will not be able to stop every attack — and we know the next attack is a matter of when and not if. Because of this, we have taken great efforts to attempt to limit the impact the long-expected attack will have. They have done this by raising awareness about the items that can be used in terror attacks and by limiting access to these items. Nowadays, when a gasoline tanker truck goes missing, a quantity of dynamite is stolen from a quarry or a suspicious person attempts to buy a quantity of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, people quickly report these incidents and alerts are issued. This simply did not happen prior to 9/11.
Another factor is the public reaction. The Charlie Hebdo shooting and the recent attack in the heart of Paris deeply shocked the French public, not only by the scope and devastation of the attack, but by the very fact it happened. Prior to that, French considered terrorism as something that happens “over there” and not at home. Today, the French public has been anticipating a follow-on attack on national soil. This means that French people will be more and more committed to protecting their life and values and should be less reluctant to report any suspicious fact, possibly linked to the preparation of a terrorist attack.
The national population has many more eyes and ears than the whole security forces, even with the use of widespread video surveillance. If people start to feel threatened as a nation, they can be a part of the solution. Authorities should communicate more efficiently and on a wide scale, committing people to the national security strategy.
Citizens could become highly effective grassroots defenders.
If you see something, say something.