The Nov. 13 Paris attacks were conceived to provoke terror in large segments of a civilian population. They were designed to be seen as an attack on our “culture” as represented by high-level sports, rock and roll music, and casual evenings with friends. Targeting a France-Germany friendly football match at the Stade de France ensured an immediate audience of the 80,000 in attendance, most of whom go with the intent of recording some of it on social media. Millions watch these football games throughout France, Europe and much of the Middle East and Arab world where football incites passions bordering on nationalism and religion. This series of attacks was well organized and coordinated and cost peanuts to execute.
There are many layers to understanding the events in Paris. Our reactions should not be knee-jerk. We need to be careful not to display the behaviour which the attackers seek to solicit. While it is hard to discern the motives, the attackers are assumed to hate us for our way of life — the freedom we enjoy to be and say what we want. There is a real risk that in our response, we will sacrifice that very freedom.
The attackers want to promote the view—and get us to believe—that there is a war between Islam and the west. This will not only help their recruitment and fundraising, it will also draw the west further into the war narrative. The attackers succeed if we conflate Muslim refugees with terrorists.
To understand the fight, try to understand the fighters—the mostly young men, rarely women—who are prepared to literally blow themselves up. Theirs is a political fight, not a religious one. As the personal narratives of the Paris terrorists are becoming known, we are learning of mostly European-born-and-educated young men, raised in a culture of exclusion and discrimination.
The violence associated with France’s efforts to dominate and rule Morocco and Algeria are living memory and context for relations between France’s large Muslim population and les vrai francais (i.e. white, Christian, French-speaking). There are large quartiers in Paris, Marseilles, Brussels and other French and Belgian cities which are essentially North African ghettos, where exclusion from mainstream society is the reality and opportunities are few. These are the breeding grounds for the kind of hatred and violence we saw in Paris.
The attacks will impact our perception of ourselves and the communities with which we identify. Somehow, to most westerners the Paris attacks were different from the attacks the day before in Beirut where 43 people died, or the 224 Russians returning from a beach vacation who were bombed out of the sky on Oct. 31, or the constant daily horror inflicted on the Syrian people — all victims of the same branch of fanatical extremism. There is a lot of “us” and “them” in the way we look at the world; we can expect more of it. It is the “us” and “them” stance of the young European terrorists and they want to encourage it.
The death of privacy and growth of security
The Paris attacks will have big implications for privacy and security. The digitalization of everything and the eruption of social media recording every aspect of internet users’ lives means that every transaction, every chat, every click is captured, analyzed and used for all sorts of purposes. Even if we try not to, we are all leaving a bright trail as we wander the digital highways.
There is a real risk that in our response, we will sacrifice that very freedom.
As computing power increases, not only are we able to flit around the internet, but the analytics of tracking our patterns of use, our use of words or language, sites visited, time spent per page are all captured and assessed for behaviour which someone or something considers deviant and requires closer inspection. Our digital trailings are routinely used to try to sell us something. If you are asking questions to Google, Google knows what you are interested in and at what time of the day.
A little over a decade ago facial recognition technology was solely used by the USA defence sector. Now the same technology is given away and used to put names on your Facebook photos. The same technology can pick you out of a crowd and will increasingly be used to identify terrorists and criminals. The analytics are getting to the point where it appears possible to identify a person’s mood from their facial features at any given time. Technology is driving these changes.
Numerous candidates in the 2015 federal election can attest to the fact that once something is digitalized it is there forever. Technology is not only eroding our privacy at an increasing rate, it is forcing us to reconsider what we mean by privacy. If you operate in the digital universe you should have no expectation of privacy. This reality has a dampening effect on what we think, or at the very least what we are prepared to commit to in an email or Facebook post.
In the wake of the Paris attacks we can expect greater surveillance of people, goods, money, and even ideas, crossing borders. We will see increased use of biometric identifiers to secure people’s identity — including, for instance, to access buildings, or when logging in to various accounts. States will work closely to reinforce security standards in travel documents and transport security.
The attackers succeed if we conflate Muslim refugees with terrorists.
There will be an increased push for cooperation among security and intelligence agencies, as the Harper Government did with the controversial Bill C-51. While police authorities often find common ground in working internationally, as INTERPOL attests, it is far more difficult for intelligence agencies to work internationally. Sharing is not a word which comes naturally to intelligence officials, who are brought up in a culture of withholding information; often people in the same agency do not have any idea about the nature of their colleagues’ work.
This culture of security even has a name and security classification, called “Need to Know”. Internationally, you have to be very careful with whom you share information. At times they will have very different perspectives on what is or is not acceptable with respect to fundamental issues such as torture or killing people.
‘Understanding’ key to safer solutions
Understanding modern day terrorism requires understanding foreign policy. We do not understand ISIL or Daesh if we do not understand the recent history of the Middle East, the implications of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the mistake of throwing the entire Iraqi army out of work. If you are looking for the young men who are prepared to risk their lives on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq you will find a lot of them among the young Ba’athist soldiers the U.S. sent packing.
No country can assess these threats and developments, or protect from them, in isolation. We cannot understand or protect from these threats unless we work internationally, and not just with our closest partners. To make progress you need a common understanding.
Turning off the flow of funds to terrorist organizations is a key approach. The attacks we saw in Paris did not cost a great deal of pull off. It is hard to imagine how any level of surveillance of financial transactions could have detected the minuscule funds needed to acquire some basic weapons. It is money for oil which is keeping ISIL or Daesh alive with the funds to pay for weapons, mercenaries and operations. This flow of funds needs to be stopped.
Canada should revisit its agreement with Saudi Arabia [to provide over $14.8 billion in armoured vehicles].
One hopes that the Paris attacks will provoke real discussion and action about the trade in weapons. The Middle East and much of Africa are awash in weapons that the large powers are all prepared to sell to whomever will pay.
Canada has recently joined this game by agreeing to provide over $14.8 billion in armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, a country where women do not have basic rights, where young men are killed because they are gay, and where artists are handed death sentences for publicly expressing their religious views.
Canada could promote an international campaign to limit the trade in weapons. Weapons are a little like pollution: if it goes into the atmosphere it is going to come back to haunt you. Canada should revisit its agreement with Saudi Arabia.
In Canada your chances of being killed by a moose are significantly greater than the risk of being killed by a terrorist, yet terrorism seems to get all the attention. Terrorism directly affects very few Canadians on a daily basis, but it is the background to much of politics and public discussion. In part this is because terrorism has to do with “us” and “them”. An incident like Paris makes us think about who we are. If we are to have a serious discussion about terrorism, we need to face some hard realities in the Middle East.
While far from perfect, Canada’s inclusive society provides the forum where new Canadians of any background can succeed economically and socially, and where they can practice their faith freely. Canada’s steady inflow of new immigrants every year makes us more open to others and hopefully in some sense more tolerant of differences.
Canada is a country where our courts, and many non-Muslim Canadians, are prepared to defend a Muslim woman’s right to wear whatever she wants. Collectively, we have every interest in encouraging this spirit of respectful dialogue and inclusiveness.
It is really our best defence against the hatred and violence we saw in Paris. You cannot fight hatred with bombs.
Terry Cormier is the former director of the International Crime and Terrorism Division with Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, a position he held for five years, through the explosion in international counter-terrorism cooperation following the 9/11 attacks. He was born and raised in Corner Brook and was the Green Party candidate for Long Range Mountains in the 2015 federal election. Terry is also a member of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation and advocate for First Peoples’ issues in Canada.