The terrorist attacks of 13th November, 2015 show a very significant development in the level of sophistication of IS affiliated terrorist groups. The ability to plan and coordinate an attack involving multiple suicide attacks and shootings at several locations is a big step forward from the Charlie Hebdo attack, the murder of off duty soldier Lee Rigby in London, the two ‘Lone Wolf’ attacks in Canada and the cafe attack in Sydney.
Even the 7th July, 2005 bombing in London, that killed 54 and injured over 700 and the commuter train bombings in Madrid on 11th March, 2004 which killed 191 and wounded 1,800 do not necessarily show the same level of complexity even though they involved multiple coordinated detonations.
The Paris attacks are more complex than the London or Madrid attacks in that they involved multiple coordinated types of attack at multiple types of target. The ability to detonate three suicide attacks and follow up with shootings and a hostage situation is a big deal. It’s an absolute game changer. There is one thing however, that all terrorist attacks from the lone wolf to September11th have in common, and it is the use of terror as a weapon.
The acts of violence used in terrorist attacks are exactly that. Acts of violence and they are abhorrent. Whatever the methodology used, be it a bombing, a shooting or vehicular homicide it is an act of violence and it must be seen and treated as such. Perpetrators must be found and prosecuted and actions must be taken to predict attacks in order to prevent and disrupt them.
A bigger part of any terrorist attack however is the fear or terror that it creates in the wider population. In a terrorist attack the effects of the act of violence will be felt not just by the victims, their families and those connected to them, but by many, many people spread far and wide that have no tangible connection to the victims.
Although the terrorist attack will be centered around and defined by the act of violence it is the perception of the attack and the reaction to it that will have the greater impact. That doesn’t mean that the attack itself is not significant, because it is. Each attack is a tragedy for the victims, their families and their friends, just as any other criminal killing is. But the violent and unexpected nature of a terrorist attack will magnify its’ impact so that it touches and affects society as a whole in a way that can even cross borders and oceans.
As humans we like to draw comparisons and make links and connections. It helps us to understand the world and makes things less complicated. And it’s because of this that the Paris attacks are that much more significant. All terrorist attacks reach people that are not directly affected but the Paris attacks will reach more than previous attacks. The Lone Wolf attacks in Canada targeted military personnel. Although the news saddened and angered many few Canadians felt that they were personally at risk. By comparison the Madrid and London attacks targeted the mass transit networks of each city. As with most European cities the rail and bus services are an essential part of the city used by almost everyone at one time or another. By targeting the tube every Londoner can legitimately feel that they are a target. While it is impossible for a terrorist group to attack everyone in a city of nearly 9 million people, in mounting an attack of this nature, they can make transit users across the city fear that they are a target. And when we add the effects of the modern media, we have transit users in other cities around the world fearing that they are now targets also.
Now whereas the London and Madrid attacks incited fear amongst transit users (and others) the Paris attacks go much further than that. In targeting an international sportin g event with suicide bombers, citizens enjoying an evening on the streets of Paris and concert goers all in one coordinated series of events they have spread their reach far and wide. They literally attacked the whole city and by implication other cities around the western world. Although the level of sophistication demonstrated by these attacks in terms of planning, training and logistics required is a significant development, so is the selection of the targets, spanning multiple aspects of an evening in Paris while an international soccer match is being played.
The consequences of these will be felt for years to come just as the consequences of other attacks are still being felt. Passengers flying to the United States still take off their shoes because of an attempted attack in 2001 and limit the liquids they carry because of an attempt in 2006. Harrods in London will always be the scene of an IRA bomb that targeted Christmas shoppers even though it happened over a generation ago and Lockerbie will always b e the town where the wreckage of Pan Am Flight 103 came down.
While all attacks are horrific in themselves, it is the perception of the attacks and the fear that they create that their impact is truly felt. The attacks will influence the behaviour of many millions of people, sometimes through the response of governments in creating or amending legislation and also through changing the way that individuals see the world and therefore the decisions that they make. And this won’t be restricted to the governments and the individuals that have been touched directly by the attacks, it will also affect those who are even tenuously connected by using terror as a weapon.