These atrocities mark a new and sinister development in the steady expansion of attacks attributed to or claimed by the so-called Islamic State. In claiming responsibility for the attacks, ISIS says the killings were in response to airstrikes against its militants in Syria. And it has threatened further attacks against France. In their ferocity, scope and randomness they resemble scenes we associate with Beirut or Baghdad but not with Paris or London. With these attacks the Middle East has finally come to Europe.
These are not isolated, lone wolf, spur-of-the-moment attacks. In June, ISIS claimed a gun attack at a Tunisian beach resort in Sousse that killed 38 tourists, 30 of them British. In October Turkey blamed a suicide attack killing 102 people in Ankara on IS, although the principal suspect in that case was the Turkish state itself. Later that month, ISIS's Sinai affiliate claimed to have brought down a Russian airliner, killing all 224 people on board. On 12 November, IS claimed the bomb attack on the Hezbollah stronghold in south Beirut that left 44 people dead. And now Paris, with at least 129 dead and over 300 seriously injured.
Although these attacks were not necessarily difficult to execute, they still required planning, preparation, training, obtaining weapons and explosives, reconnaissance of the target and the careful recruitment of so-called “martyrs” – young fanatics prepared to carry them out knowing they will probably die doing so. This is not something new. It was the normal modus operandi of al-Qaeda in the early 2000s. The aim was to obtain the maximum publicity and cause the maximum number of casualties with minimum forces, as with the notorious Madrid bombings, which cost even more lives than the recent outrage in Paris.
Western counter-terrorism experts had drawn the conclusion that while such grand-scale attacks might still be possible, the prevailing threat was more likely to come from “lone-wolves”, people like the murderers of British soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich near London in 2013. In the light of what has happened in Paris and elsewhere, they may have to revise that assessment.
The impression that has now been created is that of a confident, all-powerful enemy with almost infinite forces that lurk unseen in the dark corners of society, waiting to pounce. This impression is strengthened by the declaration of the French President that it was a “declaration of war”. The Jihadis make a lot of noise (they have become skilled in the black arts of propaganda on social media). But in fact, the wave of terrorist attacks is not a manifestation of strength but of weakness. ISIS is not advancing but retreating under a rain of blows. The terrorist attacks are not a declaration of war but a declaration of desperation.
The refugee problem
The bombings and shootings will have far-reaching political consequences. As could be expected world leaders expressed their outrage. Barack Obama said that America stood “shoulder-to-shoulder with France.” The Vatican described the attack as “mad terrorist violence”. Mad it may have been, but in the word of Shakespeare: “Though this be madness, yet there is method in't.”
The Paris attacks have provoked a wave of panic that seeks a scapegoat for the atrocities. That is conveniently provided by the refugees. Since the bloody civil war erupted in Syria four years ago, more than 250,000 people have been killed and millions have been displaced as a result of the fighting. In the current mood of anxiety and paranoia, it is easy to point an accusing finger at the thousands of exhausted, hungry and bedraggled people who have braved death by drowning and many other dangers to escape from an even worse fate in their own war-ravaged lands.
It is claimed that a Syrian passport, registered in Greece, was found on one of the attackers. The Greek authorities say at least one of the attackers may have passed through the island of Leros with a group of 69 refugees. The man, apparently, registered in Greece and had his fingerprints taken. The Serbian Interior Ministry says that the holder of the Syrian passport crossed into Serbia on 7 October and sought asylum.
The refugee crisis that was already testing Europe’s resolve to the limit will take on a new dimension. This can already be detected in Poland. A Polish minister seemed to challenge the German approach to welcoming refugees when he said "we have to be aware that we were wrong, too naive and idealistic." The new Minister for European Affairs Konrad Szymanski said "we will accept refugees only if we have security guarantees". But how exactly these “guarantees” can be provided is unclear.
The President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker warned on Sunday against giving in to what he called "base reactions" over the refugee crisis. But the head of the BfV, the German domestic intelligence agency, Hans-Georg Maassen, has warned that "we observe that Islamists are specifically approaching refugees in the reception centres. We already know of more than 100 cases".
It is of course by no means ruled out that ISIS has made use of this flood of refugees to infiltrate terrorists into their ranks. The 1000-mile (1,600km) Turkey-Syria border presented little obstacle to the thousands of would-be jihadists coming from Europe to swell the ranks of IS. It would appear to be even less of a barrier for terrorists moving in the opposite direction.
However, this explanation is as false as it is superficial. For one thing, although it is still porous in places, much of the border on the Syrian side is now controlled by the YPG, a Kurdish militia that is bitterly opposed to IS. So the "window" through which jihadists can cross is closing rapidly. Iraq is not a realistic transit route, Jordan's border is closed and in Lebanon there is a high risk of being caught by security forces.
The whole point of this is precisely that ISIS's online recruiters have been forced to change their tactics. Instead of encouraging people to attempt the risky journey to Syria, they are advising their followers to stay in their own countries and carry out attacks there. In the short term at least, this will increase the likelihood of terrorist attacks in Europe like the one in Paris last Friday.
What price Schengen?
The flood of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and other war-torn and poverty-stricken parts of the globe has led to demands for tighter border controls. After the attacks in Paris this chorus has become louder and more strident. If the Jihadis are preparing to launch large operations inside Europe then control of the borders becomes a much more pressing issue.
The Schengen agreement guaranteed the free movement of people. This was one of the corner stones of the European Union. But this core principle, the “jewel in the European crown”, is now at risk. Even before the grim events of last Friday the Polish President of the European Council Donald Tusk said: "let there be no doubt; the future of Schengen is at stake and time is running out…we must regain control of our external borders".
There is talk of a Belgian link to the events in Paris. Several men have been arrested near Brussels. Le Monde reported that a police raid in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek. The newspaper says that it involves a second team that fled the French capital on Friday night in a car. According to witnesses, one of the cars used by the terrorists had a Belgian number plate. France has now introduced temporary border controls. But this measure may turn out not to be temporary after all.
A number of other countries, including Germany, have also suspended the Schengen agreement. And the longer countries return to border controls or fencing the more the principle of an open Europe will be undermined. Nothing will be left of the proud boasts of an ever-deepening movement towards European integration.
The Paris attacks will serve to aggravate the sense of a crisis that already existed in Europe, the feeling that the borders are not secure at a time when wars are raging just outside in Europe's outer perimeter. Having loudly trumpeted her willingness to welcome the asylum seekers, Angela Merkel is now pleading with the Turks to take back the refugees and take whatever steps are necessary to slow the exodus of those seeking a new life in Europe.
The smiling mask of humanitarian concern has slipped to reveal the ugly face of imperialist hypocrisy that lies behind all these phoney declarations. Since Turkey – even more so after the latest attacks – is a key country for the calculations of the West, Europe is prepared to do a deal with President Erdogan, conveniently forgetting about his authoritarian tendencies, his brutal repression of the Kurds and above all his well-known de facto alliance with ISIS.
The “war on terror”
The President of the French Republic Francois Hollande has said Friday’s attacks were an “act of war… prepared and planned elsewhere, with outside involvement which this investigation will seek to establish”. He added that France will be “ruthless in its response”. French warplanes have subsequently attacked a number of targets in and around Raqqa, the capital of the so-called Caliphate. But these aerial bombardments have more propaganda content than genuine military significance. After more than a year of what was supposed to be an intensive bombing campaign to degrade and destroy ISIS as a military force, the US-led coalition has been forced to admit that it has failed.
British Prime Minister Cameron would like to join M. Hollande in bombing Syria but he dares not ask Parliament to vote on this until he considers there to be enough support. “Isil don't recognise a border between Iraq and Syria and neither should we. But I need to build the argument, I need to take it to Parliament, I need to convince more people,” he said. That will not be an easy task. The British public, like the American public, is tired of military adventures that bring nothing but new and even greater disasters.
Faced with the pressing reality of the refugee crisis, and now with the threat of an unprecedented terrorist campaign in Europe, the western leaders are stressing the need for a “political solution” to the Syrian crisis. In order to obtain this, they have been compelled to swallow their pride and seek assistance from a man they have presented as beyond the pale of human civilisation, Vladimir Putin.
The Russian military intervention in Syria has undoubtedly played a major role in all this. Overnight it changed everything. It forced the American leaders (who were and are split over this issue) to jump off the fence and take decisive action against ISIS. This has transformed the military situation, destroying the uneasy stalemate and pushing ISIS onto the defensive. For most of last year and much of this year the focus of ISIS has been on taking and holding territory in the Middle East. For its leaders in Raqqa and Mosul, that is still the priority. So what is the reason for organising violent jihadist attacks in Europe and elsewhere?
ISIS is reeling under the daily onslaught of airstrikes, losing one leader after another. They are increasingly looking to direct or inspire attacks on soft targets further afield in an attempt to show that they are still a force to be reckoned with. In reality the attacks in Paris were not a sign of strength but more like a desperate act born out of weakness. ISIS has suffered a series of reverses in recent weeks. Thanks to Russian support Assad’s forces have made important gains, albeit with heavy losses.
This has jolted the Americans into belated action. Recently US-backed groups have made big advances in the north and the north east of Syria. It was also announced in Washington that American troops are involved on the ground. It was significant that the announcement was not made by Obama himself, since in theory they have not had permission for this.
Now the leaders of Europe and the USA are meeting Mr Putin for face-to-face talks at the G20 summit in Turkey. This is after at least 18 months when they were accusing the Russian leader of every conceivable crime and a few more besides. But following the well-worn path of diplomatic tradition, these most experienced practitioners in the gentle art of cynicism will greet the man from the Kremlin with warm handshakes and smiles. The British Prime minister admitted that dealing with Russia over the future of Syria was “difficult” and that there had been some “profound disagreements”, but added that Mr Putin recognised the threat IS posed to his country. So that is OK then.
Obama and Kerry are now pushing for a deal to be made with the Russians and the Iranians. Obama was pictured on television huddled in an intense private conversation with the Russian leader. This will of course not please the Turks and the Saudis who have been playing their own dirty game in Syria and are determined to get a bite of the cake in any “peace” negotiations.
The leaders of the West will have to swallow many unpalatable things if they want the Russian President to help them get out of the hole into which they have dug themselves. At the top of the Russian agenda is the maintenance of Bashar al-Assad's government. And if the Turks and Saudis do not like it they will have to lump it. It is Russia, not they, that now decides.
For the time being France is in a state of collective shock. As is usual in such times, normal political life has been temporarily suspended. There is a natural outpouring of popular grief and anger. But very soon France will be facing elections in which be the right-wing National Front of Marine Le Pen is expected to make gains. A matter of hours after the Paris attacks she called for the “annihilation” of Islamist radicals. She told reporters in Paris on Saturday that the country had to clamp down on Islamist fundamentalism, shut down mosques and expel dangerous “foreigners” and “illegal migrants.”
This poisonous rhetoric can get an echo in the context of alarm and fear provoked by the attacks. As always, terrorism plays into the hands of reaction. In fact, in this case, the terrorists desire precisely this result. They wish to push French society into the arms of reaction in order to create an infernal spiral of action and reaction that they hope will win them many new recruits prepared to blow themselves up for the Cause.
Terrorism always leads to a strengthening of reactionary tendencies in society and also a strengthening of the state. The bloodbath in Paris will lead to an immediate ratcheting up of the state's powers – and not only in France. The police on this side of the Channel were not slow to press their claims for more, not less, state cash. Former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair said he was “very worried” about police funding cuts, adding the Metropolitan Police's budget must be protected to keep counter-terrorism intelligence coming from communities.
David Cameron lost no time in announcing a substantial increase in the money available to the intelligence services, whose numbers are to be increased by almost 2,000. At a time when vital public services are being cut to the bone, this represents a 15% increase in staffing for the intelligence agencies.
The Paris atrocity came at a time of heightened class struggle in France. Recently the bosses of Air France were attacked by the workers who were said to have torn the jacket off the back of one of them as he tried to run away. The BBC carried an article with the revealing title : France's fight with unions reveals echoes of Revolution.
There is this video of a TV programme on Canal+ in which Xavier Mathieu, an ex CGT shop steward at Continental which was closed a few years ago, explains why the working class is becoming angry, and states that he used to be a pacifist but now believes in violence, as this is the only thing the bosses understand. In the same video there is the speech of a very angry Air France hostess that has gone viral and workers everywhere in France have identified with it.
The terrible events of last Friday can have the effect of temporarily diverting the attention of the French workers from the class struggle and cutting across this process. But that cannot last long. In reality, the best recruiting sergeant for the Jihadi lunatics is the appalling conditions faced by millions of unemployed and dispossessed youths living in slums in the poverty-stricken ghettos on the outskirts of Paris and other big cities. Secondly, it is a foreign policy in which countries like France and Britain participate in imperialist military adventures that ultimately are reflected in terrorist actions at home.
Before the Second World War, Leon Trotsky predicted that the War would end in the victory of American imperialism, but he added that the USA would have dynamite built into its foundations. That prediction was tragically confirmed with the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11. Now tragedy has struck in France. The same tragedy can be repeated at any time on the streets of any one of the capitals of Europe. There is dynamite in the very foundations of our society. Only a root-and-branch transformation can remove it.