In Paris this week, people returning to work will be trying to make sense of the terrible events that took place in their city last weekend. Lives were cut short or have been changed irrevocably. In an interconnected world, we too heard the screams and saw the blood and panic, the lifeless bodies – and in doing so, we too will have felt violated.
London is just a two-hour train ride from Paris and in this other capital – itself no stranger to terrorist attacks – there is a palpable sense that no city is safe. This is what Islamic State wants: to sow fear and hatred. Vibrant multicultural cities such as Paris and London, where religions and communities live cheek by jowl, are an anathema to religious extremists who wish to impose their own austere, violent and distorted interpretation of their faith on the world.
The response from France to this attack has been predictable. President Hollande has declared that France is at war with Islamic State, and the bombing of Raqqa, de facto capital for IS, has already begun. Twenty bombs were dropped on Sunday night, on a city with a population of 400,000. “We are going to lead a war which will be pitiless,” said Hollande.
Piling tragedy on top of tragedy, the bombs dropping on Raqqa will almost certainly not defeat IS. What we know for sure is that bombing a city with 400,000 civilians will cause deaths and suffering among civilians. What we also know is that military action of the type being waged right now will only embolden groups such as IS.
So what is to be done? There is no simple solution to the unending catastrophe that is taking place across Syria, of which the rise of Islamic State is just one part. However, here at Peace Direct, one lesson we have learned from our local partners around the world is the importance of helping people at risk of disaffection to feel part of their communities, thereby turning away from extremism. This might sound like a liberal platitude in the face of such a violent movement: but in fact such work within communities to counter violent extremism is hard, dangerous and dedicated. But – as we see in our award-winning counter-radicalisation project in Pakistan – it can have remarkable results.
What is needed is time, money and consistent engagement between those local people who are intimately aware of the problems in their communities and those at the margins of their communities, who are at risk of turning radical. Recruits are the oxygen supply for extremist groups. Without willing fighters and recruits, Islamic State would find itself slowly asphyxiating.
Islamic State, like all other extremist groups, relies on a steady stream of recruits, many of whom come from across Europe. They feel alienated from their own communities and are drawn to dynamic movements such as Islamic State. Most of the suspects in the Paris attacks were French or Belgian nationals, who grew up in marginal communities there. We need to find and support those who can reach out to such people in the margins before it is too late. Local peacebuilders are the name we give to such people, and they need serious support.
Alternatively we can continue the relentless bombing and see how long it is before another atrocity flashes across our screens.