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The Dangers of a European War on Terror
The Dangers of a European War on Terror
Could Talking to Mali's Jihadists Bring Peace?
Could Talking to Mali's Jihadists Bring Peace?

The Dangers of a European War on Terror

Originally published in Politico Europe

European countries need to take military action and rally around democratic values.

I am French and as such deeply saddened by what happened in Paris, especially after the bombs in Beirut and the destruction of a Russian airliner. Yet I am also a European citizen, deeply concerned by the damage a combination of the terrorist attacks and the refugee crisis may do to European values and to the European project itself.

As EU leaders grapple to find the right response to violent extremism, I passionately believe they can most surely reestablish their sense of security if they stay cool and remain true to the high principles that have long served Europe best.

The triple outrages crowned by the attacks in France’s capital are horrifying. They require a strong response in which military measures abroad have a part, as does security-service cooperation among and beyond European Union member states. But what we need most is a political strategy that gets at the roots of the problems, foreign and domestic, out of which terrorism has grown.

This is a defining moment for Europe, and it must learn from the mistakes of the United States in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. It must calibrate its reactions to the real threats it faces. And it must act in the consciousness that — unlike the U.S., which has some luxury of distance — recent events only underline how much its societies, geography, politics and security have become inextricably bound up with what is happening in the Middle East.

European political elites, already buffeted by the failure to foresee and manage the refugee crisis, understandably feel they are losing control. The vocabulary of war that French President François Hollande and others use is meant to establish a sense of unity, prepare citizens for suffering and herald the long effort ahead. But it also foretells a new global war on terrorism that may be just as unsuccessful as the first one.

Military action needs to be taken to break the momentum of the Islamic State and the aura of invincibility that is a part of its attraction. It is important to deny terrorists safe havens in which they can train and prepare new attacks. But an air campaign will not suffice to destroy ISIL or end violent extremism.

For Western countries and for Russia, who know that another invasion is neither advisable nor politically feasible, the temptation is great to conclude tactical alliances with local allies: the Kurds of northern Iraq or of Syria, the Shi’ite militias of Iraq, or even the Assad regime. They can fight the ground war that foreign powers want to stay away from.

The problem with such alliances is that they contribute to the sectarian and tribal divisions that ISIL feeds on. In the Middle East, the group has used civil wars to prosper. It now wants to export division and communal polarization to Europe — this time between Muslims and non-Muslims — to gain a foothold and weaken the resolve of countries engaged in bombing campaigns against it.

ISIL’s strategy is the best signpost to what a counter-strategy for all forms of violent extremism should be.

In Arab countries, the goal must be to stop the polarization and the wars that are critical to the violent Islamists’ success. In Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, governments that represent only part of the country are unlikely to achieve a lasting military victory against ISIL. That is why we need to prioritize broad peace agreements, and, where appropriate, convince outside powers like Iran and Saudi Arabia to support more inclusive regimes.

Results are unlikely to come quickly, and zones of conflict are more likely to expand than contract in the immediate future. That is why the domestic dimension of an anti-ISIL strategy in European countries threatened by terrorism is so important. This is a long war that will test the resilience of democratic societies.

The risk of terrorist attacks cannot be eliminated, but it can be contained. The internal security dimension is of course key, and European countries must do much more to share intelligence, consolidate databases, and devote more resources to monitoring potential terrorists. But such efforts have their limits, let alone because, if pushed too far, they can jeopardize individual freedom.

The goal of the Islamic State — to divide and polarize both Middle Eastern states and European democratic societies along religious lines — will only be defeated if citizens refuse polarization and rally around the values that define democratic societies.

In that respect, a generous approach to the challenge of refugee flows — which, if well managed, can be a blessing for an aging Europe — will be a test. It will also be a signal to European Muslims, who make up 6 percent of the European population, that a self-confident, multicultural Europe remains their home.

Podcast / Africa

Could Talking to Mali's Jihadists Bring Peace?

In this episode of Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh talk with Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim, Crisis Group’s Sahel expert, about whether it is time for a new strategy in Mali as the government and its allies struggle against jihadist insurgents. 

The war in the Sahel appears to have reached a stalemate. In Mali, fighting pits the Malian security forces, backed by regional militaries and French special forces and airpower, against an al-Qaeda-linked jihadist coalition, JNIM (the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims). Since Mali’s crisis in 2012-2013, efforts to defeat jihadist militants have only seen their influence expand. Violence has spread across the Sahel at terrible human cost. Two successive coups in Bamako, Mali’s capital, have fuelled political instability. French officials appear exasperated by the lack of progress. Yet militants themselves are also under pressure, with several leaders killed over recent years. 

In this episode of Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh are joined by Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim, Crisis Group’s Sahel expert, to ask whether it is time for a new approach. They take stock of the insurgency’s current state, its aims and JNIM’s relationship with al-Qaeda. They discuss the future of the French presence and the consequences of the recent coups. They also speak at length about prospects for talks between the government and JNIM leaders, what such talks might entail and the challenges such a path would pose. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more information, explore Crisis Group’s analysis on our Sahel and Mali regional pages as well as our work on Jihad in Modern Conflict. Be sure to keep an eye out for Ibrahim’s upcoming report.


Interim President
Naz Modirzadeh
Board Member and Harvard Professor of International Law and Armed Conflicts
Consulting Analyst, Sahel