The images coming out of Nice are shocking. Bodies crushed beneath the multi-tonned might of a truck. Revellers who just minutes before were celebrating the festivities of France’s Bastille Day mowed down in the street. Corpses everywhere. People fleeing, running for their lives. All of it live-streamed by the ubiquitous smart-phone.
This terrorist attack (if that is indeed what this was) did not occur in isolation. In preceding weeks we have witnessed similar scenes of carnage in other great cities of the world – Istanbul, Medina, Dhaka and Baghdad. Terrorism is not new to us. But this attack is particularly frightening for two reasons.
At a visceral level, the mangled bodies on the promenade remind us of the human cost of terrorism in a way which even the vaporised nothingness which follows a suicide bombing can fail to convey. The mashed bodies are the bodies of actual recognisable people. The Horror, in the sense which Conrad meant it, is real.
Secondly, and perhaps most frighteningly, the use of an everyday vehicle as the primary weapon in a terrorist attack shows us that despite our best efforts to catalogue and trace the purchases of fertiliser at hardware stores; strictly control the dissemination of firearms and ban pen-knives on planes; we can never fully contain the threat posed by violent extremists. Preventing access to the means by which this violence is perpetrated is crucial but we should be under no illusions – we will never completely eradicate terrorism.
Reactionary voices will come forward saying that a ban on Muslim immigration is the solution to terrorism and Donald Trump will inevitably tweet, as he has tweeted before, that “I alone can solve” (the problem). But make no mistake – no border, no pogrom, no government-funded de-radicalisation program will ever be able to negate the possibility, however infinitesimal, that a madman will slip into the driver’s seat of a legally-purchased, road-worthy truck and run down dozens of innocent people in the street.
The perpetrators of these attacks plan and execute them with specific objectives, that is, a “desired end-state”, in mind. The political function of a terrorist attack is to incite fear in a population and if the scenes of chaos in Nice are anything to go by, IS has achieved this end-state. “Nous sommes terrifiés,” tweeted the Mayor of Nice, begging the Niçois to remain indoors. The city is in a state of panic. At a global level, the terrorists are celebrating further because we, like the Niçois, are afraid as well – afraid that we will be the victims of the next terrorist attack.
But while the terrorists’ coup in Nice and the marked increase in terrorist attacks should give us all cause for concern, we should not confuse “an increase in terrorist attacks committed by the Islamic State” (assuming IS is responsible) with a statement like “the Islamic State is winning”.
Far from it in fact, on the ground in Syria and Iraq, where this fight really matters, IS is not winning. In the last few months alone, thanks to the co-ordinated efforts of Western, Iraqi and Kurdish forces (and the non-related but mutually-supportive efforts of the Syrian government and its ally, Russia), IS has lost a significant amount of its territory. Palmyra is back in the hands of the Syrian government. Fallujah is back in the hands of the Iraqi army and the Kurds have chased IS back to the gates of Mosul.
Indeed, if we use Mao Zedong’s 3-phased guerrilla war as a model for a successful fight we can see that the last year has been disastrous for IS – a year which has seen it regress from “Phase 3” (wherein the guerrilla army, as in 2014, begins the decisive annexation of enemy territory) back to “Phase 2” – the use of intimidation tactics like terrorist attacks to weaken the enemy’s resolve.
Furthermore, when one observes that the attacks in the holy city of Medina have drawn the ire of prominent Saudi Salafists or when one considers the empirical observation that the use of indiscriminate violence is ultimately counter-productive to a group’s political aims then, all things put together, these attacks appear less as a sign of strength and more as an indication that IS has a reduced threat profile than the one it had just a few years ago.
One-by-one its fighters in Iraq and Syria are being picked off. Just yesterday in a demonstration of the effectiveness of US airpower, Omar Al-Shishani, the Georgian-born commander of the Caliphate’s North and heartthrob of ISIS’ mujahireen (foreign fighters) was obliterated by a laser-guided GBU-12. Indeed, according to some in the online #ISfanclub, it is yesterday’s loss of Al-Shishani which inspired this new attack in Nice. Thus we arrive at the following conclusion. Outgunned, on the run and lacking the means with which to commit atrocities, ISIS has now resorted to running innocent people over with trucks.
In real terms, as I tweeted just yesterday, ISIS is in a bad place. If current trends in Iraq and Syria continue, my guess is that ISIS will be militarily defeated by this time next year. On the conventional battlefield, they are done. The terrorist attacks however, will likely continue as ISIS reverts to “Phase 2” tactics. In kind, we should prepare ourselves for the next battle – to make sense of and systematically defeat the ideology of salafi-jihadism. This will take time. And patience. But we should be confident about our ultimate victory. Yes, we know now that a truck can be used by this enemy for indiscriminate violence. The prospect truly is terrifying. But as Omar Al-Shishani learned yesterday, 230kg of ordnance (when used selectively), and a patient, cerebral approach is far more effective.