Europe's ris­ing tide of at­tacks show di­min­ish­ing po­lit­i­cal ef­fects

New Straits Times - - Opinion -

IT shouldn’t be a sur­prise that Is­lamic State (IS) was quick to claim re­spon­si­bil­ity for the sui­cide at­tack in Manch­ester that killed 22 peo­ple. As its last ter­ri­tory in Iraq’s sec­ond city of Mo­sul falls to United States-backed Iraqi forces and its Syr­ian cap­i­tal, Raqqa, is en­cir­cled, the group is in­creas­ingly des­per­ate for le­git­i­macy. At­tacks on the West are one of its few re­main­ing op­tions.

Al­though IS claimed the at­tack as re­venge against “Cru­saders”, nei­ther the US nor the United King­dom au­thor­i­ties have at­trib­uted blame to the group.

What­ever the truth, the IS faces an­other, per­haps more se­ri­ous prob­lem. Its at­tacks on Europe may be mon­strous, but they yield a de­clin­ing po­lit­i­cal re­turn.

IS wants its atroc­i­ties to foster di­vi­sions, driv­ing a wedge be­tween na­tive pop­u­la­tions and more re­cent Mus­lim mi­grants. That would bol­ster the group’s ar­gu­ment that only a rad­i­cal Mid­dle East­ern caliphate is ca­pa­ble of pro­tect­ing Mus­lims, and po­ten­tially drive new re­cruits both to fight its re­gional wars and con­duct at­tacks far­ther afield. But that doesn’t seem to be hap­pen­ing.

Events in Europe sug­gest IS is fail­ing in its mis­sion to di­vide. Since Jan­uary 2015, France has been on the re­ceiv­ing end of a higher tempo and in­ten­sity of Is­lamist mil­i­tant at­tacks than any other West­ern state. In its elec­tions ear­lier this month, how­ever, the ma­jor­ity of vot­ers re­jected Marine Le Pen’s Na­tional Front, with its strong anti-Mus­lim rhetoric, to elect cen­trist Em­manuel Macron.

That was de­spite a sus­pected Is­lamist mil­i­tant at­tack on the Champs El­y­sees in cen­tral Paris that killed a po­lice of­fi­cer barely four days be­fore the first round vote. De­spite wor­ries the at­tack might boost the per­for­mance of the far right, there is no ev­i­dence it did.

Sim­i­larly, in Ger­many, a back­lash over mi­gra­tion fu­elled by sev­eral mil­i­tant at­tacks last year ap­pears to be fad­ing, de­spite the De­cem­ber truck at­tack on a Ber­lin Christ­mas mar­ket that left 12 dead. Chan­cel­lor Angela Merkel looks set to be the vic­tor in the na­tional elec­tions in Septem­ber, per­haps even ce­ment­ing her power fur­ther.

In Bri­tain, po­lit­i­cal par­ties have tem­po­rar­ily sus­pended cam­paign­ing fol­low­ing the Manch­ester at­tack. It seems un­likely the in­ci­dent will af­fect the elec­tion, how­ever.

A height­ened po­lice pres­ence can only do so much. For the Paris at­tack in Novem­ber 2015 that killed 130 at a con­cert and nearby restau­rant, IS ap­peared to have been able to get its as­sailants into Europe from the Mid­dle East. More re­cently, how­ever, the group has largely re­lied on us­ing on­line pro­pa­ganda to rad­i­calise in­di­vid­u­als whose in­de­pen­dent ac­tions it then claims re­spon­si­bil­ity for af­ter­wards.

To an ex­tent, it has no choice — Euro­pean se­cu­rity forces have be­come adept at de­tect­ing and rolling up ex­tended mil­i­tant net­works, but in­evitably find it harder to track down “lone wolves”. If the Manch­ester at­tacker was part of a wider group, its mem­bers will prob­a­bly be iden­ti­fied rel­a­tively quickly.

De­fend­ing “soft” tar­gets like the Manch­ester con­cert hall will al­ways be dif­fi­cult, if not im­pos­si­ble. Im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vices will al­ways be build­able by those with skills and the re­quired ma­te­rial — al­though po­lice are get­ting bet­ter at track­ing the pur­chase of com­po­nents and catch­ing would-be bomb-mak­ers be­fore they are fin­ished. Still, as the Nice truck at­tack and oth­ers have shown, there are al­ways crude, but ef­fec­tive ways to strike.

Even with the num­ber of ca­su­al­ties in Paris, Nice, Brus­sels and now, Manch­ester, Is­lamic mil­i­tant groups have had less of an im­pact on Europe than on coun­tries such as Pak­istan, Nige­ria or Iraq. Those na­tions, too, have shown re­mark­able re­silience. Oc­ca­sion­ally, pub­lic con­cern over at­tacks has had a sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal ef­fect — the ab­duc­tion of more than 200 girls by Boko Haram was seen as a fac­tor in the de­feat of Nige­rian Pres­i­dent Good­luck Jonathan by for­mer mil­i­tary leader Muham­madu Buhari the fol­low­ing year. More usu­ally, how­ever, it does not.

Whether such at­tacks can change do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal dy­nam­ics de­pends on their shock value. The de­struc­tion of the Twin Tow­ers on 9/11, for ex­am­ple, was un­prece­dented in scale and spec­ta­cle to the ex­tent that it re­de­fined West­ern think­ing on the Mid­dle East and mil­i­tancy for years. Amer­ica’s on­go­ing ac­cep­tance of civil­ian-re­lated gun deaths, how­ever, in­clud­ing at­tacks on schools, is a stark re­minder of just how nor­malised ter­ri­ble in­ci­dents can be­come.

The at­tack in Manch­ester is the most se­ri­ous in Bri­tain since the July 2005 bomb­ings of the London trans­port sys­tem. Af­ter other events on the con­ti­nent, how­ever, nei­ther it nor the West­min­ster at­tack felt sur­pris­ing. That doesn’t di­min­ish the grief and the mourn­ing, but it does limit the broader po­lit­i­cal im­pact.

IS will con­tinue fight­ing, even as it loses ter­ri­tory. If it is de­stroyed out­right — or dele­git­imised through its own fail­ure to achieve its end — then oth­ers will take its place.

Iron­i­cally, how­ever, the more at­tacks the group mounts, the less im­pact each in­ci­dent will have.

IS wants its atroc­i­ties to foster di­vi­sions, driv­ing a wedge be­tween na­tive pop­u­la­tions and more re­cent Mus­lim mi­grants.


Peo­ple look­ing at flo­ral trib­utes for the vic­tims of the Manch­ester Arena at­tack at St Ann’s Square in cen­tral Manch­ester, Bri­tain. The at­tack is the most se­ri­ous in Bri­tain since the July 2005 bomb­ings of the London trans­port sys­tem.

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