Near the beginning of the year I had to write about a set of Paris attacks, and as it comes to a close here we are again. As 129 innocent people lie dead thanks to the cowardly actions of self-styled warriors of Allah, the awful shock is tempered by a world-weary inevitability, a sense that something like the Charlie Hebdo massacre was always going to happen again. And again. And again. For the murderous thugs and zealots of IS, there is no out-of-bounds, no target too soft to be the object of an outrage, but to defeat them the powers ranged against IS can't carry on as they have been doing. Here are some scattered thoughts on military "hard" power, and the crucial importance of the "soft".
1. Up until now their jerry-rigged caliphate in Iraq and Syria has concentrated Islamists from across the globe. For the thousands of volunteers pulled in from Western Europe and North America, there's a place on the map they can go; an imagined community of small minds for whom medievalism backed by selective Qu'ranic verse is their vision of heaven on earth. Here they can live out their brutalised fantasies against defenceless Yazidi, or pretend domestic bliss under self-ordained Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Now that its supply lines from Turkey are under regular attack by the Russians, no matter how attractive IS territory may appear to the jihadi imagination, getting there is much more difficult. As the siege ratchets up and their pocket of territory contracts, that leaves more would-be fighters in the West available for operations like yesterday's outrage. Perversely, as IS weakens in its stronghold the capacity for (semi-autonomous) terror attacks in the West become more potent.
2. Nevertheless, there are military options. The blood price paid by Russian tourists and pleasure-seeking Parisians has redrawn the complex alignments in Syria, again. Francois Hollande and Vladimir Putin are on the same page and, understandably, there's probably a unanimity of public opinion across Europe against Islamism. Who wouldn't want to see IS perish beneath a whirlwind of bombs? The danger of entanglements between Western and Russian aircraft in Syrian skies has receded and a unified response is now, for the moment, possible. But as an objective, given the above, is it possible and desirable? First of all the crushing of IS cannot be accomplished by upping the number of sorties flown. It requires troops, and is there any appetite that same public opinion to put Western and Russian soldiers in harm's way? Is that even the case in a France raw with grief? It's unlikely. However, there are already troops on the ground who are proving effective against the Islamists. The problem is there's not enough of them, and Turkey are intent on bombing them behind their lines. If the West/Russia are not intent on fielding soldiers against IS, they're going to have to cut a deal with the Kurds and offer them more than the present alliance of convenience between them and the US State Department.
If, however, the unthinkable happens and ground troops are sent against IS, as much as the latter would relish the fight the modern firepower and well-trained forces France, Russia, and Britain have at their disposal shouldn't have too much trouble rooting out and destroying IS. IS aren't going up against the ramshackle Iraqi army, and neither would the great powers be facing a well-motivated indigenous insurgency as per Basra and Helmand. Were IS to be eradicated from their homeland, it might, might, rob IS sympathisers elsewhere of a focus and demonstrate the futility of their impoverished politics. If not here, where? If not now, when? What's the point if your efforts are doomed to perish? Then again, their bit-part theology is hardly conducive to rational thought. Its other-worldly orientation can easily adapt itself to life without the so-called caliphate and alibi terrorism for terrorism's sake. And, of course, pasting IS territory with bombs isn't very likely to well-dispose civilians to the West, threatening a renewed cycle of radicalisation and violence.
3. Speaking on BBC News this lunch time, Lord Carlile - the so-called terrorism expert - called for Muslim leaders and young Muslims to come forward and be more forthright in their condemnation. What on earth does he think they have been doing? British mosques regularly ring out with denunciation against Islamic State and extremism. There are plenty of Muslims making plain their opposition to fundamentalist terrorism. Should Carlile pause before speaking ill-informed bollocks in future, perhaps he might like to reflect why the Muslim voices the media much prefers to give national platforms to are unrepresentative self-publicists like the rancid Anjem Choudary, or dishonest frauds like Mo Ansar. Where's the call for the media to act responsibly and reflect the popular opinion of British Muslims? Your voice can only carry so far if the press and the broadcasters are utterly uninterested in what you have to say.
And here is the problem the political and security establishment refuse to confront. While it is crass and stupid to say the West is to blame for Islamist extremism, radicalisation doesn't happen in a vacuum. It's not as if young Muslims stumble on propaganda videos and are turned into hate-filled zealots on the basis of IS battle images or pictures of fighters with kittens. They appeal to some because they seize on real grievances and work on them. Every time there is an Islamist outrage, Muslims are targeted in sporadic revenge attacks by far right thugs, are blamed by politicians and media figures, and told in no uncertain terms that they must integrate better. Often times, the need for terror is surplus to requirements - politicians and the media froth away anyway. A perception that Muslims are treated as second class citizens at home is repeated by what happens abroad. Contrast the sensitive and humanising coverage the Paris victims have - rightly - received with Palestinians murdered by Israelis, civilians killed by US drone attacks, or people blown apart by suicide bombs in Baghdad or Beirut. The second class status of Muslims is perpetuated in the way the tragedies befalling the Muslim world are covered. Is it any wonder that some might find themselves alienated from official society? That a rational kernel wrapped in an IS shell can cut through and mobilise a very small minority of disaffected young Muslims?
IS themselves are well aware their appeal lies in this tension, and their terrorist actions are designed to exploit it. Attacking soft targets puts European Muslims in general under pressure by the media, by the security apparatus, by the populist and far right. Nothing would suit IS more if the Paris attacks are followed by waves of arson and violence and, in five weeks time, a good election result for the Front National. It also helps explain why Friday's killers had fake Syrian passports - the more antipathy that can be stirred up against Muslim refugees, the more the West's human rights rhetoric are exposed as hypocrisy, the greater the pool from which IS can recruit.
Bombing IS and destroying them on the battlefield might stamp them out in the short-term, but for as long as grievances are fed there will be people ready and more than willing to exploit them. Injuncting Muslims to sort themselves out is not going to disperse the jihadi imagination. British society, French society, Western society has to look at itself and address the mainstream practices and inequalities that can turn small numbers of marginalised populations into vicious, hate-filled mass murderers.