Why Do Terrorists Target Democracies?

PARIS — When terrorists attacked the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo last January, the prevailing view in Europe was that their target was freedom of speech, “a key component of our free democratic culture,” as Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said then.
On Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush had a similar explanation for why the United States had been singled out. “America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world,” he said in a speech to the nation.

Democracies have come under repeated terrorist attacks over the last 14 years. There were the Madrid train bombings in 2004, the London subway attack in 2005, and in more recent years, sporadic cases across Europe. These included an attack on a Jewish school in the French city of Toulouse in 2012, killings at a Jewish museum in Brussels in 2014, a thwarted attack on a Catholic church outside Paris and most recently, an aborted shooting spree on a Paris- bound high-speed train.
These attacks have been attributed to Islamist extremists, but other attackers have targeted their own societies in more solitary wars: Anders Behring Breivik, obsessed with a hatred for multiculturalism, went on a murderous rampage in Norway in July 2011.
Democracies are not the only target of terrorist groups. Suicide bombings occur with deadly regularity in the Middle East and elsewhere, often in societies that lag far behind the democratic ideal, claiming the overwhelming majority of terrorism’s recent victims.
And yet the repeated attacks in Western countries continue to raise questions about the terrorists’ goals. Are democracies targeted because their social and political freedoms are antithetical to the jihadists’ vision of a rigid theocracy? If killers targeted Charlie Hebdo for its caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, why did a fellow terrorist, two days later, target a Jewish grocery store?
Islamist leaders have never hidden their disdain for democracy. Osama bin Laden, in a message to Iraqis in 2003, called it “this deviant and misleading practice.” The late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, considered the founder of the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS, challenged the 2005 Iraqi elections on theocratic grounds. “The legislator who must be obeyed in a democracy is a man, and not God,” he said. “That is the very essence of heresy and polytheism and error as it contradicts the basis of faith and monotheism.”
Yet most experts today would argue that Bin Laden attacked the United States in 2001 because of its military presence in the Middle East, not because of its freedoms. “If Bush says we hate freedom, let him tell us why we didn’t attack Sweden, for example,” the Al Qaeda chief said in a video broadcast on Al Jazeera in 2004.
As Islamist terrorism has evolved since the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, the thinking about the terrorists’ motives has also shifted. The recent arrival on the scene of ISIS or Daesh, its Arabic name, has redefined the debate once again, as about 20,000 foreign fighters — including hundreds from Europe — join the war to establish an Islamic caliphate in the Middle East.
The fear in France and elsewhere in Europe is that Western recruits will return to wage a campaign of terror in the countries where they grew up, raising again the question of why Western democracies continue to be targeted, and if they — precisely because of the freedoms built into their systems — are more vulnerable to attack.
Gilles Kepel, a professor at France’s Institute of Political Studies, has argued that ISIS, in contrast to Al Qaeda, is playing a deeper and wider game by deliberately stoking tensions “at the heart of Europe in order to destroy it by unleashing a civil war between its Muslim and non-Muslim citizens and residents.”
Mr. Kepel, in an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde last January, cited a strategy elaborated in 2004 by Abu Musab al-Suri, a Syrian ideologue, who called for individual acts of terror in Western societies designed to incite Islamophobia. He argued that this, in turn, would alienate more local Muslims, making them potential recruits for jihad.
The advent of social media, and a full-out war waged by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, has allowed this strategy to be put into action, according to Mr. Kepel. “The entire world became a battlefield for Daesh,” he said in the interview.
“‘Blasphemous’ cartoonists, Muslim ‘apostates,’ the police, Jews are all choice targets,” he said. “Daesh has identified precisely cultural, religious and political divisions, and has set their objective to turn them into fault lines.”
Other Islamist strategists have elaborated the theory of a “leaderless jihad,” which does not try to organize terrorist actions, but rather inspires them from afar, avoiding huge bills and risky command structures.
Jessica Stern, co-author with J.M. Berger of “ISIS: The State of Terror,” said the movement’s message was strikingly simple. “Everyone must come join the jihad, but if you can’t come, then stay home and carry out attacks there,” she said. The eventual goal is polarization and chaos — an “apocalyptic narrative” favored by Mr. Zarqawi.
“Social media has certainly made it much easier to encourage individual cells,” said Ms. Stern, a lecturer on terrorism at Harvard. “It is very effective because it makes it hard for law enforcement to know what is going on.”
Democracy, in that sense, may be more the setting than the target — opening a debate about whether democracies are more vulnerable because they allow more room for free speech and greater protection of human rights. Experts note, for instance, that autocratic societies like China have experienced fewer terrorist attacks than, say, India.
Others argue that repression only fosters terrorism. “The more you fight any expression of dissent under the banner of ‘counterterrorism,’ the more you foster the very same terrorist threat,” Jean-Pierre Filiu, a professor at the Institute for Political Studies, wrote recently. He cited the case of Algeria, where an Islamic party’s victory at the polls in 1992 was suppressed by a military coup, leading to a decade-long war with marginalized jihadists that cost the lives of some 150,000 Algerians, mostly civilians.

As they set out to recreate a caliphate, ISIS leaders have reportedly instituted elements of a functioning state in places like Raqqa in Syria.
But ISIS rule is enforced by fear, rather than free consent. “If you believe the right way to regulate society should be determined by the word handed down by a 7th century prophet, that rules out having a vote on it,” said Patrick Cockburn, an Irish journalist and author of “The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.”
ISIS’s military victories against the Iraqi Army and aggressive U.S.-led airstrikes have made it into something that Al Qaeda never was: a winning cause. An anonymous author, identified as a former official in a NATO country with wide experience in the Middle East, wrote recently in The New York Review of Books that the movement’s achievement has been to create a monopoly on jihad, luring fighters from all over the world.
“The only change is that there was suddenly a territory available to attract and house them,” the author wrote. “If the movement had not seized Raqqa and Mosul, many of these might well have simply continued to live out their lives with varying degrees of strain — as Normandy dairy farmers or council employees in Cardiff.”
“We are left again with tautology: ISIS exists because it can exist,” the author wrote. “They are there because they’re there.”

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/15/world/why-do-terrorists-target-democracies.html?_r=0


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