The French President reacted strongly to the barbarous attacks on Paris, saying that France is at war with ISIL. Responding to terrorist mass murder is never easy, and his language may well have caught the mood of anger of the moment. We need, however, to consider carefully what is the best response to this and similar outrages. We can learn from history.
There are three main ways established states and governments can respond to terrorism on home territory. Terrorists can be treated as the most brutal kind of criminals. Their conduct is against the criminal law code of all civilised countries, as well as against the morality of most people in advanced societies. It is best under this approach to find, arrest and prosecute them. It may be essential to kill them if they are caught during an attack and threatening to kill more people if not stopped by force. The aim is to respond under our rule of law. Terrorists and suspects also have the right to a fair trial if apprehended, but can be killed legally by our authorities if they are an immediate threat to the rest of us. We do not licence our authorities to go round killing suspected or potential terrorists here in the UK who are not an immediate threat, but wish to put them on trial or to deport them.
The second approach is to see them as warriors fighting against our society. One of the problems with this approach is they do not usually qualify as war fighters under international law. They do not normally wear uniforms so they can be easily identified, may not carry identification documents, and do not fight on behalf of a recognised state that has declared war on us first. As the West is busy denying that ISIL is an official state, the act of identifying them as soldiers in a war in France is to undermine the argument that ISIL is not a proper state. Allowing them the dignity of soldiers also implies that we should expect retaliation against our society. When German bombs fell on London people did not rail against the criminality or illegality of the action, as we did the same to German cities. It was brutal war where you had to accept retaliation. It seems to me unwise to glorify these mass murderers as soldiers with the implied recognition of their so called state. We should not allow any justification of this monstrous violence.
The third approach which has been adopted for some past terrorist movements – which I am not recommending for today’s ISIL – is to see that they have a political agenda which has some justice if pursued in a non violent way, and to initiate political talks to see if a new peace can be created where the terrorist groups come to play a peaceful political role. Some thought of the ANC as a terrorist organisation, but the world came to see it as a legitimate expression of opposition to apartheid which could become the elected government of South Africa. The IRA were brought into the peace process in Northern Ireland and turned to political action.
So how should the West respond to ISIL and related groups spreading their criminal deeds from the Middle East to the streets of Paris or London? There are a number of things our governments must do.
The first is to redouble the efforts to secure good intelligence. There has to be deep and constant scrutiny of those most likely to be terrorists, where there is reason to be suspicious.
The second is to have stronger border controls than we currently have, to prevent the entry of those who might be a threat to our society, and to monitor or control the re entry of British citizens who have chosen to go on prolonged visits to places where they have access to terrorist and extremist training.
The third is to make sure we have well armed rapid reaction forces close to likely targets and in our main cities capable of deploying very quickly should a terrorist attack begin.
The fourth is to evict on evidence more from our country who do not wish to live by our rule of law after coming here, and who may represent a threat to us.
The fifth is to ensure our education system in secondary schools and Colleges is free from extremist and hate based influences.
All this is a sensible programme of security for the UK, based on the enforcement of our criminal law.
This leaves open the large question of what if anything the UK and the rest of the West can do to help stabilise the situation in Syria? The UK has to accept that we should not and could not lead an invasion of Syria ourselves to defeat ISIL and other rebel and terrorist groups, in order to install some new administration. The US could do that, but under President Obama has no intention of doing so . The Western allies are agreed that any ground war fighting in Syria has to be done by Arab forces, not by the US or UK armies. The US is providing some air intervention, but so too now is Russia. Until we have a clearer idea of the ground forces that can win and need our help I do not wish to see UK planes or drones doing this job. The lack of any invitation to do so from the official government of Syria is not just a legal but also a practical complication in the way of bombing campaigns, making access to the ground to target bombs well and follow up to check results that much more difficult. The nature of the official Syrian government is a major obstacle in planning intervention in the Syrian civil war.
I welcome the opening of a peace process. Syria needs more political energy and fewer bombs.