international analysis and commentary

One year after Charlie Hebdo


A year after the Charlie Hebdo massacre and a month after the start of British air strikes in Syria, a macabre video with fresh ISIL executions has been launched as a message to British Prime Minister David Cameron.  The warning issued by the heir apparent to Jihadi John (the Londoner of Kuwaiti extraction who played a leading role in the ISIL’s beheading campaign before being slain by a drone in the vicinity of Al-Raqqa) is that the caliph is now bent on opening up a British front, after the French front that grabbed all the headlines in 2015.

London, which was hit by Al-Qa’ida cells in 2005, is mentioned as a priority target for the ISIL in Europe.  And Europe, for a caliphate that is losing part of the territory it won astride the border between Syria and Iraq, continues to be an openly acknowledged target at which to strike.  So while our hearts dwell on the memory of the first carnage in Paris and our minds ponder our security for the future, it is important that we ask ourselves whether Europe is better or worse placed to respond to the jihadist threat in 2016.  I think that an honest answer might go something like this:  Europe’s citizens have proved to be surprisingly strong, for which in this case we should understand “resilient” (although possibly unwittingly so), while the European Union as a collective institution capable of making rapid and useful decisions has proven to be weak.  And unless that gap closes fast, there is a distinct danger that Europe’s citizens may start to waiver too.

Let us take a closer look.  A number of Italian friends of mine are still on vacation in Paris, with their children.  They may be fewer in number than in the past, but they are there nonetheless.  Exactly a year after the attack on Charlie Hebdo‘s offices and less than two months after the Bataclan tragedy, the European man in the street has not changed his habits.  He has taken on board the knowledge that he is living in a new era of insecurity, but he has also realized that he cannot simply give up his freedom.  That is the first battle that the ISIL’s followers in Europe have lost.  The people of Europe may not be able to “think war” (after nurturing Kantian illusions of perpetual peace for over half a century) and suppression certainly tends to follow on the heels of emotion in their psychological makeup.  Yet for all that, they still defend their lifestyle in their daily conduct.

To what extent does the European Union prove its usefulness in that connection?  In theory, the existence of a common threat, of an external/internal foe, could prompt Europe to unite after all the bickering over the euro and the tug-of-war over migrants.  If we look at history, we will see that confederate and federal situations, whether in Switzerland or in the United States, have always required an adhesive of that nature.  Such an adhesive was there, to some extent, in 2015.  We have but to recall that France evoked the “mutual defense” clause enshrined in the European treaties for the first time following the 13 November attacks.  But if we then take a look at the debate currently taking place between the member states on the topic of external security (whether or not we should consider ourselves “at war”) and of internal security (police cooperation, EU border monitoring, or the sharing of intelligence), I get the feeling that the delays outweigh any progress.

The point is that slow, partial decisions are no longer enough.  Old-style “crisis management” belongs to a bygone age.  For the first time, we cannot rule out the possibility of a “dis-union” scenario.  But if we take our cue from the fallout of the conflagration in the Middle East – Europe believed until only a few years ago that it was surrounded by a “ring” of friendly, stable countries – and from what the citizens of Europe really need, the scenario that we need to pursue heads in exactly the opposite direction.  A “security union” now seems crucial if Europe wishes to meet the challenges of today rather than those of yesterday.  This requires that various conditions be met, yet resistance to those conditions continues to carry weight at the national level, hampering the genuine exchange of intelligence, the common monitoring of Europe’s external borders, and even joint military engagement.  A common strategic vision of the broader Mediterranean is one of the necessary preconditions.  It is worth stressing once again that the war against the self-styled caliphate is part of a sort of Middle Eastern Thirty Years War, and that it is primarily a civil war within the Muslim world itself.  But that does not diminish the fact that the European front is now a front linked to that war.  If it is in the ISIL’s interest to divide the peoples of Europe (and yesterday’s macabre video tells us that it is), then it is in the Europeans’ interest precisely to avoid doing so.


A version of this article was published in the Italian daily La Stampa on January 4, 2016.