Interview with Mary Bossis. In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the French weekly Charlie Hebdo, Ms Mary Bossis, Associate Professor of International Security at the University of Piraeus, explains how the concept of terrorism has changed ever since 9/11 and what is the root of islamic extremism in Europe today.
• Let us begin with the not so self-evident question. What happened in Paris?
A classic terrorist attack. It has been actually expected for three years now. Authorities in Europe anticipated such a hit, they made relevant warnings, especially with regard to attacks or violent action by Muslim extremists in Europe. At the same time, security measures had been impressively increased. What should be noted is the existence of Islamist groups that are not integrated in the European social reality and have transcended into a phase of “political radicalisation”.
• Still, the perpetrators held the French citizenship. How does this part of their identity concurs with Islamist extremist the Press speaks of? Is it a new phenomenon?
In the European continent, mainly the old colonialist powers, there are significant population groups that religiously belong to Islam. France hosts the largest muslim population, due to its colonialist past; this is approximately five million registered muslims, perhaps seven million non-registered. Certainly, there are many muslims in other countries, such as the United Kingdom, Belgium etc. It should be emphasised, though, that the vast majority of them are peaceful citizens, more or less integrated in society, who actually participate in the civil process and propriety of the state they live in.
What is a new phenomenon and one that we have observed during the last three or four years is marginalisation; the failure of mostly young muslims to integrate. The economic crisis Europe is going through and the dissolution of welfare state have substantially aggravated the situation. This marginalisation is followed by radicalisation of these people, which is anyway natural to happen.
• Would you elaborate?
We see the development of extreme conduct and whatever this comes with. It the result of three factors.
The first is time in jail. To a great extend, because of the crisis, several people resort to petty crime and end up in prison. Imprisonment has a more acute effect to individuals that have been “ghettoised”, for instance due to the inability or unwillingness of the primary national/cultural group to assimilate them.
The second factor is imams’ activity at mosques, in France and Europe in general. Authorities have tracked extremists in various countries, imams who are well-known and openly express their views. They “recruit” and encourage European muslims to fall into extremism. For instance, to turn from French workers into ISIS fighters.
The third factor is the internet. It has come to light that Al Qaeda, for example, manages 4,000 websites on a global scale, which are set up and removed on a weekly basis. This rapid rate does not allow the cybersecurity teams of the western countries to track the websites. We also see that ISIS has an extensive online activity, social media activity, largely thanks to its members that are located in European soil and have joined the so-called Islamic State.
• Speaking of ISIS, it hailed the attack against Charlie Hebdo. However, it was Al Qaeda of Yemen that took responsibility. Is there a rivalry here?
ISIS succeeded in doing what Al Qaeda could not, that is creating an islamic chalifate, a statelike entity that truly threatens the West. Surely there is notable religious competition; for instance, Al Nusra joined the Islamic State once it thought Al Qaeda lost the game and failed to act “radically” enough. The Al Qaeda branch of Yemen is closer to the extremist aspects of Islam as well.
• Several European and world leaders lost no time to take part in a unity march in Paris. How would you comment on that?
It’s positive, but too little too late. There is, without doubt, a disposition to conceal the cause of the problem. It would be preferable if several western states wouldn’t help finance ISIS. The problem is that this is accepted or at least tolerated. ISIS was funded by the West and its Arab allies, it was decisively supported by Turkey and became a destination-way out for radical muslims, Europeans facing social exclusion. In this framework, a sort of mercenary army was built with a deep, extreme religious character and radical political orientation. These paid fighters are also highly pious. Al Qaeda was once created in the same manner. The same way the West sponsored Bin Laden – and not just financially – against the Soviets, today it does the same with ISIS. It is the American Congress itself that has revealed this information.
• How is the terrorist threat in the very heart of Europe related to ISIS?
The war in Iraq, Libya and Syria leaves “black holes”. It widens the gaps experienced in European societies. There are more than 15,000 muslim European citizens who fight for ISIS. And the question is: Why did Europe tolerate the exodus of people who are connected with Islam and with crime at the same time? The danger is obvious, when these people return to their countries. And they do return, not randomly – for instance because the “jihad” is over – but because they are sent. They are charged with the task of bringing the war on European soil. This process takes the form of terrorist acts. I’d like to remind you that a similar phenomenon took place in the past – all things being equal – with the Afghan fighters.
• The Charlie Hebdo attack was several times seen as an analogy to the 11th September 2001 attacks in the US. Would you measure them the same?
Certainly not. The 9/11 had to do with asymmetric threat and is appended in the concept of asymmetric warfare, as military terminology defines it. It was an attack quite deadlier and far more shocking than the one at Charlie Hebdo. The latter was a classic terrorist act, without, of course, overlooking the tragic deaths of journalists, hostages and police officers.
Such attacks take place almost every day in several countries of Africa and Asia, with many victims. Nevertheless, the western media pay no attention. Unfortunately they see breaking news only when something like that happens on western soil. This also indicates the mainstream perception that the citizen of the West is privileged, thus merely worsening the rift between Islam and the West.
We should also note that the “response” of EU leaders was disproportionate to the attack in Paris. I doubt a similar attack, say in Greece, would trigger such a notable reaction. France’s response is surely explained with consideration to a series of internal matters, as well as to its presence in African countries, mostly former colonies.
• Security forces are in high alert all over Europe. The UK and France take steps to ensure military readiness… Is there war on the horizon?
It is not as simple as to pick a scenario. But there is a pattern indeed. Terrorism is not war, but is rather defined subjectively. It was only after 2001 when it was deemed equal to war. And this notion resumes today with the attack against Charlie Hebdo, precisely because of the precedent attack at the World Trade Center. This repetition consolidates and, in a way, legitimises the supposition that every time a terrorist hit happens, you can make war; bomb a country or countries under suspicion that the perpetrators are connected with or come from. The crucial issue is that terrorism has passed into the scope of military forces. The French deployed the military, even though there was no presence of a foreign army or an invasion. In fact, this happened with the consent of the people and certainly the media. So, terrorism favours conservatism and authoritarian rule, as it is exploited within the rationale of boosting security. At the same time, it has international reach, since it goes beyond the borders of one nation-state. And as terrorism is internationalised, the same applies for cooperation among authorities, information exchange etc.
• Is there a systematic approach against terrorism? What about smaller countries, like Greece?
To seriously counter terrorism means to prevent. And prevention is nowhere to be seen. There is no real change in the mentality and attitude of the West towards muslim countries or its former colonies. There is only suppression, that constantly grows, but this kind of interventionism does not prevent the process of radicalisation and extremism. I would boldly remark here that the West demonstrates an hypocritical behaviour.
For small countries, like Greece, the situation is different. Greece does not have significant muslim groups, at least with the traits I mentioned earlier. What is often being said, that muslims in Greece, immigrants and illegals, may turn to terrorism, is utter nonsense. Any potential danger stems from extremists or would-be extremists that use the country as passage to reach or return from the Middle East. There are no firmly sealed borders today. The colonialist past and contemporary interventionism of the West that comes with the disintegration of several countries, combined with economic and information globalism, have changed everything. Therefore, the “omens” coming from the international trends hint to the next area of critical interest: Africa.