Beirut, the capital city of Lebanon and once known as the 'Paris of the Middle East, witnessed its deadliest terror attack since the civil war period of the 90s on 13 November. Two suicide bombers killed more than 40 people, and the Islamic State (ISIS) took responsibility for the attacks.
Lebanon is not new to such kind of terrorism -- not just because of how close it is to ISIS strongholds but because it is a state largely controlled by Hezbollah, a Shi'a militant group backed by Iran that, along with Tehran, is also on the forefronts of fighting ISIS, a Sunni militant group. But beyond these thick lines of political and sectarian contradictions in the region the fact is that the 40 people killed in Beirut were just a lost number in a conflict that the world has just become used to.
"[ISIS] is chillingly pure in its brutality, uses media and social media platforms to its advantage and is increasingly targeting young Muslims from the West as recruits."
However, the world is certainly not used to similar acts of violence, perpetrated by the same group, in a city like Paris. Mere hours after the Beirut bombings, terrorists claiming to be from ISIS took to Parisian streets to cause mayhem, death and destruction. The attacks on the city on the eve of 14 November killed 132 civilians.
ISIS has managed to rule over global terror discourse like no other group in the recent past, perhaps not even al-Qaeda. It is chillingly pure in its brutality, makes no qualms about its intents on the use of violence, uses media and social media platforms to its advantage and is increasingly targeting young Muslims from the West as recruits.
To quantify the ISIS threat that we see today, and what it could build up to tomorrow is to read into the ways the terror group is looking to puncture the global conscience. One critical parameter to review in the Paris attacks, as journalist and author Jason Burke correctly points out, is to find out where the gunmen came from. Did they come from Syria as refugees or were they French citizens? Were they really ISIS terrorists trained in Syria/Iraq or did they only "join" ISIS via the internet and simply coordinated using social media, Skype etc?
While it is too early to answer the above questions with absolute certainty, it is important to remember just how clinical and well-adjusted ISIS has become (or been allowed to become) in spreading its propaganda. ISIS presence on the internet and social media is unparalleled. ISIS operatives and sympathisers use Twitter and Facebook with impunity; they produce their own glossy magazine and make propaganda videos featuring their kills and beheadings for distribution across the internet. ISIS has managed to write the 'Social Media for Dummies' guide for future jihadists.
In September, some reports wrote about the claims of ISIS that it was smuggling in terrorists amongst the influx of refugees escaping the war-ravaged region. This was to instill fear in the minds of the European countries that were willing to accept these refugees who were escaping what seems to be an endless crisis. However, Paris may change all this and the worst affected as an outcome may be the scores of refugees not just looking for solace, but also those that are already living in camps in Lebanon, Jordan and so on. An already stressed Europe may now look to make its borders much more tightly regulated than they are at the moment, and Muslims in general may face seclusion, perhaps more so politically than socially. (Interesting to note here that some in Paris called the terrorists "victims" instead).
"[Air strikes and ground troops] are not going to be enough to stop ISIS from transforming into an idea from a mere Islamist terror organisation that attracts the youth."
ISIS is now looking to actively disrupt narratives in the West. If ISIS becomes successful in earning the allegiance of Muslims who are citizens of Europe, born and brought up in countries such as Belgium, France, Germany and so on, then it would be correct to conclude that the potential of the organisation has been greatly underestimated. On the other hand, even if ISIS managed to smuggle operatives into Europe from Iraq and Syria, and then went ahead to coordinate the attacks, the fact will still remain that the abilities of ISIS to formulate such strikes has been either completely missed by intelligence agencies or vastly under-realised by the political establishment. If it can be established that the Paris terrorists were not just sympathisers acting on their own will, but directed by ISIS itself, it could alter the way Western powers have until now looked to understand ISIS.
The way forward from Paris seemingly remains unsure. While French President Francois Hollande has rightly called it an "act of war", and clearly stated that he believes the attacks were coordinated from outside, the fact remains that there will be no eureka moment on the Western powers' response to this tragedy. Even as analysts call for ground troops to confront ISIS head on, chances are that all we may see is a more intense air campaign mixed with more frequent special-operations missions against ISIS. Both these, and this includes Russia's own anti-ISIS air campaign, are not going to be enough to stop ISIS from transforming into an idea from a mere Islamist terror organisation that attracts the youth.
Western powers remain unsure on how to bring ISIS down, and tackle the Syrian crisis to the same effect. American policy on Syria is ad-hoc at best, similar to a buffet lunch where it just picks and chooses what it thinks is the best decision to make at that moment and then masquerade that as a policy. Considering the US had a big role to play in answering the question on the Islamic State's origins, thanks to its misadventure in Iraq, perhaps it is Washington's prerogative, more than anyone else's, to act more decisively for a time- and result-bound political process in the region.
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