Paris attack: Has history repeated a generational spiral into ultra-violence?

Bill Tupman is an honorary Research Fellow at the University of Exeter, who has 40 years’ experience in researching terrorism. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings he asks what we could learn from the past…?

As with so much in modern life, it was mobile phones that captured the brutal murder of 12 people, including two police officers and a maintenance worker, but mostly cartoonists and journalists, in the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The horrific visual images left an impression of anonymous ‘cold-blooded’, disciplined, merciless killers, who hid behind balaclavas and wore black.

It was an imitation of the forces of Islamic State, the murderous terrorists of Iraq and Syria. However, the images did not tell the whole truth. In reality, the attackers went to the wrong building first, had to force someone to let them into the offices, escaped but with no safe house established and were without a plan as to what to do next.

Nevertheless, we must ask, is this a homegrown attack or the first of the long-anticipated attacks by returning jihadis?

Attacks from those trained in warfare in Syria and Iraq were expected to be more militarised, disciplined, cold-blooded and violent, because the conflict in that area has become more and more vicious since the emergence of Islamic State from the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq, which had offended many Iraqi Sunnis, leading to its defeat during the early years of the Obama presidency. Instead, the connection appears to be to the Yemen, perhaps less surprisingly when you consider that it is al Qaeda in the Yemen that has made threats against Europe, while Syrian groups have prioritised the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts.

Al Qaeda was established to provide support to a network of more than 20 organisations operating in the Islamic world, united by common experience in the war against the USSR in Afghanistan and by a desire to return to a more fundamental version of Islam. At present it consists of a number of affiliated regional groups and indirectly affiliated organisations.

The key components are; al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which attacked in Mali and against which French troops were deployed; al Qaeda in Somalia, al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, which the Paris attackers claimed to be representing; al Qaeda in Syria, which is a different organisation to Islamic state; and al Qaeda in the Indian sub-continent.

Generational change

This downward spiral into ultra-violence has been seen before and is not inherent in Islamic extremism.

During the 1970s, the Economist published an article introducing the idea of generational change in what began as an urban guerrilla movement and turned into full-blown terrorism.

The first generation was led by relatively experienced individuals, with a long background in political activity. They began by using violence against symbolic targets and differentiated between the ‘enemy’ and the public as a whole. Mostly, symbolic buildings were targeted.

The second generation saw violence against politicians, policemen and soldiers as acceptable. The third hoisted high the banner of ‘if you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem’ , a slogan which justified civilian casualties.

Finally a fourth generation emerged which concentrated on attacking ‘soft’ civilian targets.

At the time this was considered a logical progression. As the older leadership was arrested or killed, leadership passed to individuals with fewer scruples and no real interest in building up public support. Ministers of the interior, prison warders, police officers and soldiers became targets because of the existence of comrades in prison and because other activists had been killed in action.

Provocation of overreaction by the authorities became a strategy. As potential targets were hardened and made more risky to attack, militants turned to softer targets, especially since public support decreased rather than increased. A further variable was the existence of training programmes in the refugee camps in Palestine and in other post-colonial countries.

Re-examining revolutionary groups

We may be able to learn more from a re-examination of what happened to revolutionary groups in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

There was a bewildering array of ideologies around, just as there are varieties of Islam. Just as today we have Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Salafi, Wahabi and other varieties, so we had anarchism, Maoism, several kinds of Trotskyism and orthodox communism on the revolutionary Left. We had different strategies and tactics and organisational splits because of them. We had broader campaigns within which all of these groups operated in different ways. Is it possible to learn anything by comparing the two periods? Is it possible to encourage splits and ultimately disintegration of contemporary movements?

Islamic State has been very successful at forcing groups with different ideologies together, but history tells us they will splinter just as quickly if its military successes are turned into retreat. Below the leadership is a much looser set of associations, following individual local charismatic leaders, who will go their own way when it suits them. The ‘foreign jihadis’, as well as providing shock troops, are also useful for intimidating elements of this loose coalition into submission. But the whole network is more fragile than it looks, and unforeseen events could rapidly produce internal conflicts over personalities, the tactic of indiscriminate violence, or even the teachings of Islam, leading to disillusion on the part of existing and potential recruits from Europe.

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