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Late Friday, terrorists associated with the Islamic State, or ISIS, carried out multiple, simultaneous attacks around Paris, killing 129 people and injuring more than 300.
The coordinated attacks struck a soccer stadium during a high-profile match between France and Germany, a concert hall where the American rock group Eagles of Death Metal was performing, and a number of restaurants and bars throughout the city.
On Sunday evening, in retaliation for the attacks, French warplanes struck Islamic State targets in the Syrian city of Raqqa, which the terrorist organization considers its capital.
The escalation of France's attacks against the Islamic State, and the increase in the Islamic State's ability to strike targets in Europe, are a major foreign policy challenge in western capitals.
Daniel Rothenberg is co-director of the Center on the Future of War, Professor of Practice in ASU's School of Politics and Global Studies, the Lincoln Fellow for Ethics and International Human Rights Law and a Fellow at New America, a DC-based think tank. From 2004-10, he designed and managed rule of law projects in Afghanistan and Iraq including programs to train human rights NGOs, support gender justice, and collect and analyze first-person narratives from victims of atrocities.
We asked him about the lessons that could be drawn from this tragedy.
ASU Now: Was something like the Paris attack inevitable?
Daniel Rothenberg: Some sort of terrorist attack somewhere and at some time in Europe was likely inevitable, given current conditions.
However, it is always easy to look back on something that actually occurred and later claim that it was “inevitable.” We should be cautious in claims of certainty about issues such as terrorist attacks. Think for a moment about the post-9/11 era. Most experts predicted that more, similar attacks were certain to come soon. Yet, the U.S. has not suffered a single catastrophic terrorist attack anywhere near the scope of 9/11 since that tragic day in 2001, although there have been some close calls.
Or, consider the devastating coordinated attacks in March 2004 in Madrid and in July 2005 in London. Neither country has witnessed similar events since.
ASU Now: The last time the west was at war with terrorists we were fighting al-Qaeda. Help us understand how the Islamic State is different from al-Qaeda.
DR: ISIS grew out of al-Qaeda. There are significant similarities and differences between the two groups, but both share related elements of ideology and an intertwined history. These are organic organizations that shift with historical circumstances. In many ways the ISIS' tactics and focus on building a caliphate which controls territory and operates as a governing entity — a major difference with al-Qaeda — represents a critical response to what its leaders view as the failures of al-Qaeda.
ISIS leaders include former members from Saddam Hussein’s brutal security and intelligence services, jihadists associated with al-Qaeda in Iraq, others imprisoned by the U.S. and Iraqi government for terrorist activities, and experienced combatants from the Syrian conflict.
ISIS arose in response to multiple factors including significant Sunni Arab political exclusion and targeting by the central Iraqi government and associated anger and resentment, the brutal Syrian civil war, anger, resentment and fear among multiple communities, a power vacuum in regions where they operate, specific policies of the government of (Syrian president Bashar al-) Assad and other factors. There is both a continuum between al-Qaeda and ISIS and interesting differences.
ASU Now: How does the Center on the Future of War process an event like Paris? Will it change what you're working on?
DR: The Center on the Future of War links ASU with New America, a DC-based think tank and our team includes over 90 ASU affiliated faculty and a team of over two dozen foreign policy experts including journalists, academics, former military and former government officials.
Many members of our team are working on issues directly related to ISIS, jihadi movements and multiple aspects of the conflicts in Iraq and Syria (the laws of war, human rights, insurgency funding and governance systems, foreign fighter recruitment, etc.). We have dealt extensively with these issues in public lectures and conferences including a conference on the Syrian crisis last January and one this December on the challenges posed by mass displacement and migration associated with war in the region.
With the International Security Program at New America, we have a database on all American homegrown jihadist extremists indicted, convicted or killed in the United States and a new database tracking the involvement of foreign fighters in the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Syria.
ASU Now: Should we expect more attacks like the one in Paris? Could attacks like that happen in the United States?
DR: Islamic jihadi groups with an interest in attacking sites in Europe and the U.S. are not likely to disappear any time soon. So, it is likely that there will be — at some time, somewhere — additional attacks, with a far greater chance that this will occur in Europe even as there exists significant possibility that some sort of attack this will occur in the U.S.
Still, it has been nearly 15 years since 9/11. This means the vast majority of our students have lived most of their lives after an event widely viewed by political commentators as having “changed everything.” Yet, for these young people, who represent the future of the country, daily life has not been defined by the constancy of fear and the daily calculation of risk, even as many commentators imagined a very different post-9/11 world here in the U.S.
While it is entirely appropriate for the U.S. government to respond reasonably to the very real threats that exist in our world, perhaps we can use the Paris tragedy as a means of reflecting on the nature and impact of political violence in our world. For example, for many years in Iraq and more recently in Syria, there has been systematic, brutal targeting of civilians in a manner similar to what recently occurred in Paris. Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, well over 150,000 civilians were killed as over 4 million were displaced and in Syria, just since 2011, 250,000 have been killed and one half of the country’s population has fled their homes. The complex nature of security threats is linked, directly and indirectly, to what these people have suffered. As we seriously engage the challenges that face our society, it is useful for us to try to imagine what the post-9/11 era means for others with whom we share an interconnected world.
The artwork at the top of this story is titled "Paris Night" by Benh LIEU SONG. It is licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.