ISIS attacks fueled by illegal guns and open societies we can’t afford to lose

Police stand guard in Place de la Republique, Paris, November 15 2015. Pascal Rossignol/REUTERS

Complex, well-coordinated attacks like the ones the Islamic State (ISIS) has now deployed in France and Lebanon raise the question: how did ISIS make it happen?

Actions by “lone wolves” – untrained individuals, radicalized through peripheral online contacts, who take it upon themselves to attack using cheap and readily available weapons such as kitchen knives – are one thing.

But the attackers on November 13 and in the Charlie Hebdo assault showed every sign of training. Videos at Charlie Hebdo show attackers who are comfortable with their weapons moving with calm deliberation. The attackers in Lebanon on November 12 were no less competent. The scale of coordination in each case demonstrates advanced planning.

As a scholar of religious and ethnic conflict who has spent time examining extremist capabilities in Iraq, I see several notable things about the ISIS attacks carried out this year.

They are coordinated but cheap, they rely on easily obtained illegal arms and they will be difficult to stop in our free society.

Coordinated but cheap

ISIS has learned the lesson that high impact does not necessarily require high cost. It is far from easy to produce cells of trained soldiers willing to commit themselves to such violence, to equip them or to keep them clandestine for long enough to strike. But, by comparison to 9/11, this is comparatively cheap, and ISIS does not lack for resources.

A Syrian refugee lines up to receive aid from the UN in Lebanon, November 18 2015. Omar Ibrahim/REUTERS

This makes things especially difficult in the Middle East and mainland Europe, because it is impossible to simply “close the borders,” and attempting to do so simply puts the problem off onto someone else.

The US has an advantage in our geographical distance from ISIS, which these contiguous areas simply don’t have. Floods of refugees in both the French and Lebanese cases have overwhelmed the respective governments’ capability to process everyone, which opens dangerous gaps in security. No country in history has ever been able to prevent all undocumented immigrants, and that’s under a hypothetical “best circumstances.”

Confusion is opportunity when an operational cell requires only a few people. The French police are currently hunting Ahmad al-Mohammad as part of the Friday the 13th plot. He allegedly came through Greece into France, becoming one of a “population of concern.” This group of refugees, asylum seekers and stateless persons in France totaled 309,414 people in 2015. Even assuming all eight attackers in France were refugees – and there’s disagreement over how many of them of them actually were – they would represent a total of 0.003% of that total.

Obtaining weapons

France has strong firearms regulations that do not permit the sale of the Kalashnikov assault weapons, but the conflict throughout the Middle East and North Africa has created a flood of unsecured small arms and light weapons. Lebanon is simply awash in them.

Some of these weapons have been seized by ISIS from defeated Syrian rebels and Iraqi military. Large numbers have gone missing from what were formerly Qadaffi’s stores in Libya.

The UN’s Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which went into force nearly a year ago with broad support, including from the United States, will make strides toward stemming this flood. The treaty went into effect too late for those weapons already on the black market, but future attacks could be deterred. The agreement is designed to help ensure that international arms sales and transfers “assess the risk” that such transfers would exacerbate conflict or be used to commit grave violations of international humanitarian or human rights law. Consequences would be imposed on sellers who violate this principle.

The mechanisms for tracking individual weapons are severely lacking, but improvements in “marking and tracing” within the treaty will improve the ability to track illicit weapons back to the sources of sale, and identify the points where weapons entered the illegal market so that corruption or holes in security can be closed. Those provisions will help to minimize the number of weapons that “fall off the back of the truck.”

A Catch-22

A show of support for France in Boston, November 15 2015. Brian Snyder/Brian Snyder

The greatest strengths and highest ideals of France, as with the United States, come packaged with a basic weakness: our very openness, rule of law and lack of authoritarian control over people, communication and movement also enable a great deal of operational freedom to groups and individuals that wish to harm us. ISIS understands this, and their tactics are designed around the idea that while they lack strength in numbers and scale of weaponry, their enemy is forced into a Catch-22 in which we can’t secure ourselves entirely against them without betraying the very ideals on which our societies are based. They, on the contrary, face no such paradox.

In Lebanon, ISIS is playing on a general lack of control by any one group. The formal government’s hold over the country is extremely fragile, overwhelmed by its own internal weakness and the strain of accommodating Syrian refugees. The government is fighting for control with Hezbollah in large swaths of the country. Such tensions allow gaps to open through which fighters, weapons and ideological support can pass. ISIS readily exploits these gaps.

France has better capacity than Lebanon to control an influx of fighters and weapons, but it needs to work on inclusivity. The French outlawing of Islamic head coverings and the xenophobia of Le Pen’s National Front have contributed to a climate of marginalization and hostility toward immigrant communities and those of non-European descent. As long as marginalized communities exist, shut out from the political discourse and culture at large, reacted to with hostility and suspicion – there will be a ready body of both passive and active support for terrorism. Active support creates ISIS fighters. Passive support gives them the time to plan.

We need to recognize that no effort to “eradicate all terrorists” has ever succeeded. Repressive and coercive measures required to even make the attempt tend to create enemies even as others are destroyed. Historically, we can take notes from the British struggle against the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, in which the violent tactics the British used in the attempt to put down the uprising were later credited with prolonging it. Without the social and political inclusion, the governmental capacity to close security gaps and the ability to reduce and track illegal arms sales, such efforts are ultimately futile.

Full implementation of the Arms Trade Treaty will help to reduce the weapons.

Foreign assistance money would be well spent on programs that foster inclusive, transparent, accountable governance. It should be pointed out that nothing guarantees total security – Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, for example, became radicalized despite being well-integrated in American society. We can only do our best to improve the odds.

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