The deadly terror attack in Paris – France’s worst attack in decades – reflects the difficulty the Western powers have in the war it has declared on radical Islamic terrorism, particularly against the Islamic State. While the massive coalition bombings led by the United States have largely succeeded in stemming Islamic State’s territorial advances in the Middle East after the organization’s gains last summer, they have not, at this stage, been able to slow the pace of Western volunteers joining the organization, also known as ISIS.
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On Wednesday it still wasn’t clear if the attack on the offices of the Charlie Hebdo weekly was a direct retaliation for the bombings, but that seems like a pretty reasonable possibility. In Syria, in particular, vast energies of violence and hatred have accumulated after four years of murderous civil war. Sooner or later, given the presence of Western fighters in Syria (the number of foreign volunteers there is already higher than in all the years of the war in Afghanistan), some of that energy would end up being released in Europe.
These attacks on Western targets are committed both by European fighters who have returned from Syria and by young Muslims, citizens of the West, who have become radicalized by the daily horrors in the Middle East. Yoram Schweitzer, a terror researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies, recalls that previous attacks committed by Muslims with French citizenship were carried out by fighters from Syria (like last year’s attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels), or by criminals who had undergone an ideological radicalization (like the terrorist who attacked the Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012). The latest attack in Paris might lead to copycat attacks, or even generate acts of revenge by extreme right-wing Europeans against concentrations of Muslim immigrants.
In the minds of TV viewers, the images of Wednesday’s Paris shooting evokes the terrorist attack in Sydney, Australia last month. But there isn’t much in common between an eccentric of Iranian origin who took hostages in an Australian café and the group of terrorists, armed to the teeth, who stormed the offices of the French weekly. Based on the video clips and reports from the scene, Wednesday’s attack looked like the work of a relatively organized terror cell, not a lone wolf. The attack relied on intelligence gathering, used massive firepower, shot policemen, and ended with a successful getaway. Brussels and Toulouse are more apt comparisons than Sydney.
In addition to the caricatures the magazine published of the prophet Mohammed, another possible motive for the attack that was cited Wednesday is the disrespect accorded the “emir” — Islamic State leader Abu Baker Al Baghdadi. The Islamic State is an enormous attraction for Muslim extremists in the West. Intelligence experts in the U.S. administration believe that the group is immensely more skilled than Al-Qaida in terms of recruiting through the social networks.
This attack is expected to unleash all the old demons that most Europeans would prefer to ignore. Even in normal times there are questions regarding the assimilation of Muslim immigrants in Western Europe, the influence of inflammatory clerics on young Muslims, and the extreme responses by all streams of Islam to any insult, no matter how slight, to Mohammed’s honor. But if anyone in Jerusalem, in the Prime Minister’s Office or the Foreign Ministry, is nurturing a secret hope that following Wednesday’s attack the Europeans will wake up and understand that we are all in the same boat, they are liable to be disappointed.
Although Europe is becoming increasingly vulnerable to terror attacks by Islamic extremist organizations, the EU member states are not necessarily translating this into empathy for Israel. This is attested to by France’s own behavior during the past few weeks regarding the Palestinian Authority’s attempt to improve its international standing.
But even though Palestinian terror groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad often display the same degree of murderousness demonstrated by those who massacred the French journalists, even Israel does not believe that Hamas is really equivalent to the Islamic State. The best proof of that is Israel’s policy this past summer, when the Netanyahu government, which is proud of its steadfastness against terrorism, made every effort to avoid toppling the Hamas regime in Gaza. Although Israel dealt Hamas a blow, it limited its actions out of fear that an even worse alternative would emerge in its place, namely, anarchy, which would enable factions linked to Al-Qaida or the Islamic State to become more dominant.