Institute News

Paris Terrorist Attacks – what lessons so far?

Posted By November 16, 2015 No Comments

As I write these words, France is in three days of mourning for the 129 people killed (so far) in the recent Paris attacks. A special service for the families of the victims, the 350 people who were wounded, and the other survivors will be held at Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral in a few hours time.  But for those of us now urgently reviewing our Business Continuity Management and planning the next WCDM, we are already looking to test responses and look for more practical lessons to discuss when we next meet in a few months time, being aware that it is a lot more beneficial in terms of people and communities to try and stop an attack than it is to recover from an attack.

Up until a few days ago many people had been saying that a fight against (so called) IS is not their fight, presumably to avoid yet another West v East battle in the Middle East and possible reprisals at home.  But now it’s different. If we didn’t know before, it’s clear that IS has now come to us.  They have gone global with attacks that are not random or indiscriminate, in pursuit of their three aims: to terrorize, mobilize and polarize. This in turn triggers widespread (and at times irrational) fear in target populations.

In less than a fortnight, IS has carried out three organized acts of mass murder in three countries – downing a Russian plane Egypt, suicide bombing Beirut, in Lebanon, and now attacking Paris once more.  Our enemy, for that is what they clearly are, have become more sophisticated and ruthless than we previously thought possible. Recruiting arming, coordinating and keeping hidden the Paris killers until the last moment, all implies a high level of organization. So what can we do?

“It is an act of war” declared French President Francois Hollande referring to an “an Islamist army” and so in one sentence evoking Article 5 of the NATO Washington Treaty: ‘An attack on any NATO country shall be considered an attack against them all and each country will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, including the use of armed force’. However this presumes that any attack is directed from abroad and even in the case 9/11 in 2001 (when Article 5 was last triggered), no determination has ever been made that the attack against the US was actually directed from abroad. Such words are also in harmony with Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations: ‘Nothing shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations’.  Perhaps a statement of the obvious, noting that the UN remains unable to agree a common definition of terrorism.  It’s also impossible to “close our borders” as Hollande also said in the wake of the recent attack.  One of the basic features of the EU is free passage between neighbouring countries (the Schengen agreement), so apart from the UK which geographically remains an island, borders can no longer be closed

Perhaps it is no surprise therefore, that amongst Western countries a commonly agreed (and enacted) strategy on resilience and at the same time, how to attack and conquer IS abroad (and in our own countries) remains as elusive as ever.  Many people must wonder just how many attacks are we to suffer before the massive arsenal of NATO defeats the evil that is IS and all that its perverted interpretation of Islam stands for?

If only it was that straight forward. Go as far back as the Christian Crusades in c1095 and you come to realize that the West never remembers, while the East never forgets (the radical Islamist group ‘Muslims Against Crusades’ was established in 2010 – now banned in the UK).   It is only by understanding their motives will we ever defeat IS.  Those now on their front line, wherever they are, can only be defeated by overwhelming force. Now is not the time for platitudes.  If we are lucky, we might be then be able to persuade the next generation not to follow the same route.

But while the scenes of devastation still exist in Paris, some reassuring examples of decent human behaviour have become apparent, much like I witnessed myself in the aftermath of the 2005 London undergrounding bombings.  One journalist writing in the UK newspaper The Observer contrasts Parisians’ response to the attack on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January, when thousands spontaneously assembled in the Place de la Republique to hold up placards reading “not afraid”, with the reaction on Friday. “Paris has discovered something it did not taste 10 months ago, a feeling that belongs to war zones: that violent death could come to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Restaurant-goers preferred to stay put and sleep on a floor. Those who did decide to head home were often not charged by their drivers, who were careful to avoid red traffic lights for fear of becoming an easy target if they stopped their vehicles.” Other newspapers report that “something remarkable was happening on social media” with residents using the “#porteouvert” Twitter hashtag to offer a bed or sofa to those stranded as the city’s Metro system closed. One woman told the paper: “I posted a message on Facebook asking for help and many people texted me. We stayed with a family for the night who were very kind”. Told to lock their doors, Parisians instead opened them to the refugees of terror. The same I believe, were it Toronto, London or New York.

With the next WCDM now taking shape ahead of us (and the call for papers closing at the end of November), who can say what other terrorist attacks might occur between now and next June?  But one thing is certain: the topic of how to try and manage the threat will once again be an important subject in at least one session.