The world was stunned by a series of coordinated attacks Friday night by three bands of suicidal terrorists against civilians in central Paris, during which about 130 people were killed and hundreds more injured. The assaults occurred just one day after two suicide bombers targeted a residential area in Beirut, killing more than 40 and wounding at least 200. Both cities endured their worst, large-scale casualties in more than a decade.
The radical extremist group called the Islamic State, or ISIS, has claimed responsibility for all of the attacks. Authorities in France and across Europe now are trying to determine if the terrorists had assistance from other radicals in Europe or in Syria and Iraq. In April a similar attack by a Somalia terrorist group, Al-Shabaab, at a Kenyan university, left almost 150 dead.
Former U.S. Ambassador R. Nicholas Burns, the Roy and Barbara Goodman Family Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Relations at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), is a career diplomat who now directs the Future of Diplomacy Project. Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary of intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Homeland Security, is a lecturer in public policy at HKS who teaches national security and emergency management.
The Gazette spoke with them during a pair of phone interviews about the attacks, and about what they mean not only for the ongoing fight against the Islamic State and radical extremism, but about their likely effects on free and open societies in the West.
GAZETTE: Does this appear to you to be the work of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, as it has claimed and many others believe?
BURNS: It has claimed responsibility, and the French government believes that the Islamic State authored those brutal attacks on Friday, so I think there’s a widespread presumption that it was the Islamic State or one its affiliate groups acting for it.
KAYYEM: I think we have to assume it’s ISIS only because no one else is taking credit. If there were another terrorist organization that had managed to plan such a successful attack, they’d want the credit. I thought that when I first heard of the attack, this Mumbai-type terrorism that al-Qaida was back for a brief moment, mostly because al-Qaida has been saying that they’re ready to come back. As ISIS has grown in popularity and strength, al-Qaida has been saying, “We are reforming and regrouping.” But within a few hours, it just became clear that this was some ISIS-inspired attack. What we don’t know is to the extent which ISIS central actually planned it, or if it was just a self-motivated, self-organized group.
GAZETTE: Does the style and scope of the Paris attacks and the one in Beirut tell us anything new about their tactics or capabilities?
BURNS: I think the international community made a series of presumptions when ISIS appeared in 2013-14, when they took over a third of Syria, a third of Iraq, and that was that they were a regional organization, that they were focused on fighting both the Syrian and Iraqi governments. As a Sunni terrorist group, they were focused on fighting Shia Islam. The feeling was that ISIS could be contained in Syria and Iraq. Paris was a profoundly important event because it’s now clear that ISIS has a global reach. If ISIS or one of its affiliate groups was responsible for the bombing of the Russian airliner that killed 224 people, that’s a significant event. The Beirut bombing that occurred just before Paris that killed so many people was in a Shia neighborhood, so directed against Shia Muslims. And now the Paris attacks. It shows that the Islamic State has a broad network, that they have, unfortunately, a great deal of capacity and sophistication in organizing this complex terrorist operation.
So that’s a worrisome development, and it means that we have to start thinking of the Islamic State as an organization that is global, not just regional. And I think for policy — United States policy and Western and Arab policy — it means that the effort to contain ISIS, and those are the words that President Obama used just a couple of days ago, now needs to change. It has to be a strategy to defeat ISIS. I felt all along that there was a contradiction in American policy over the last year and a half. Our rhetoric — the rhetoric of our government and other governments — has been “we’ll defeat ISIS.” But we haven’t had a defeat strategy in place; we’ve had a contain strategy in place. We’ve been limiting most of our efforts against the Islamic State to airstrikes over the last 18 months. We’re not going to put our own troops on the ground in great numbers. I don’t think there’s any support for that in the White House, in the Congress, or in the public at large.
But we haven’t done enough in arming and training Syrian rebel groups, Kurdish groups, and we haven’t done enough to reconstitute the Iraqi Army to provide the effective ground force against the Islamic State, which is the only way that that group is going to be defeated at its source in Raqqa in Northern Syria, at its source in Mosul and Ramadi and Fallujah and Anbar Province [in Iraq], which the Islamic State occupies. So I think that’s the transition point now, and it’s a lesson of Paris: that if we seek to contain the Islamic State, we are going to fail. That policy is not working. We’ve got to transition to a policy of defeating the Islamic State, given the barbarity of that organization.
KAYYEM: Yes, I think we had all focused on them being a regional threat, and if we could contain them regionally, that would be sufficient. I actually think that our successes in the last six months of containing them regionally — because in Iraq, in Syria, their geographic strength has diminished — I think those successes led them to this tactical shift to say, “We may be being squeezed geographically in the region, so we’re now going to focus our attacks on large-scale, well-organized terrorist attacks outside of the region.” I know there are people on TV saying this is phase two, but I view this as their response to their diminishing strength in the region, and the reason why I say that is ISIS knows the consequences of attacks like this. They know there’s going to be a response, and the response will likely be greater Western footprints in places like Syria and Iraq. And so, that’s a tactic on their part, to engage us regionally.
GAZETTE: Does the fact that they were able to execute this attack while evading detection by French intelligence signal a shift in their strategy?
BURNS: It’s too early to know why these terrorist bands — the three different groups that attacked the different sites in Paris — were not interdicted. It would be irresponsible to try and second-guess the French government. I will say this: The French government, the French people have been dealing with terrorism since the 1970s and ’80s. Sometimes what we forget in the United States is that before 9/11, the Europeans had to deal with a series of very serious terrorist threats from the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany, to the Red Brigades in Italy, to 17 November in Greece, to all sorts of terrorist groups operating in France and in Spain, to the IRA operating in the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. And so the Europeans have a lot of experience with terrorism. They’re quite good at counterterrorism. They obviously need a lot of help — as we need help — and so I think part of the answer here is to deepen American support for the French and for the other European governments. We’ve all got to band together to combat the Islamic State and the other terrorist groups that are confronting us.
KAYYEM: Oh, yes. A terrorist attack like this requires what we call ATM: arms, training, and money. An investigation will have to follow those three trails. There’s going to be a lot of information coming out of this investigation that is going to lead to potentially dozens of other people. The fact that at no stage was any of this, at least seemingly, picked up was clearly a failure of intelligence, but is probably also a consequence of the sheer numbers of refugees and others and those who fought in Syria that France now has in their country. I think what we’ll find is the speed with which these guys got radicalized and planned. In other words, compare it to Osama Bin Laden’s group, where they fought in Afghanistan for years on end, and then in various countries and then emerged. These are decade-long relationships of planning and radicalization. I think what we’re going to find is the speed by which these guys got engaged and trained, planned, and organized, and then did their attack — it’s a very short runway, and that makes it more difficult to pick up.
GAZETTE: Are we at an inflection point in the war on terror? Could we be on the brink of a kind of world war?
BURNS: We’re not on the brink of a world war, no. But we have seen now that the Syrian civil war, four and a half years into it, has now become a regional war. Syria has produced 260,000 dead and 12 million homeless people in a population of 22.4 million. That war has now metastasized into Lebanon, into Iraq, into Jordan, into Turkey. And it’s also metastasized into Europe, with the hundreds of thousands — and I think the potentially millions — of refugees who will seek asylum in Europe over the next year or two or three. So what we have to recognize is that the Syrian civil war — and it was the Syrian civil war that produced the Islamic State, it grew out of that war — now is reaching far beyond the borders of Syria, throughout the Middle East, and into Europe, and it could possibly reach the United States. We can’t discount that possibility. If that’s what’s happening, if the Syrian civil war has become regional and now global through the Islamic State, then we have to go to the source and defeat the Islamic State as the principal terrorist organization operating in the territory of Syria.
I think the United States has to lead this international coalition. It means that we have to intensify our airstrikes against the Islamic State in northern Syria, number one. Number two, we need much greater support than we are getting from the Arab world. Most of the Arab countries that were part of the air coalition beginning in the summer of 2014 are now not very active. The United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia are doing relatively little against the Islamic State because they’ve been focusing on the civil war in Yemen. We need much greater support from the Arabs. They’re the ones, ultimately, who ought to have the self-interest to defeat this organization. We need greater support from Europe. Now the French have been very stalwart over the last several months, but the British have not done as much as they normally would. Many of the other European members of the NATO alliance are doing relatively little in terms of supporting the United States in this air campaign. So we need help to prosecute a more effective air campaign against the Islamic State.
And then I also think we’re going to have to do more to provide arms and training to the Syrian Kurdish groups that have been the most effective fighting forces against the Islamic State. We need Turkey to cease and desist its own attacks on those Syrian Kurdish forces. And we need, of course, to broaden our intelligence cooperation, our law enforcement cooperation, our diplomatic cooperation in a big coalition to defeat this organization. The United States is the only country with enough capacity and influence and effectiveness to lead this coalition. And I don’t mean hundreds of thousands of American troops on the ground. I’m not suggesting that. We have very few American forces in Syria. We have a slightly greater number in Iraq, but I think the president is right not to reintroduce American combat forces into Iraq and Syria, but to add special forces, to add air capacity, to add forces that can help train the Iraqis and the Syrians to defeat this group. That’s what we’ve got to do now.
KAYYEM: I adore this pope, but I was not happy with those words. [Pope France described the Paris attacks as part of a “piecemeal Third World War.”] Because I think if we conceptualize this as a war, it tends to radicalize both sides. We have a huge security challenge right now, and the solution is not to conceive of it in terms of a war, but to conceive of it in terms of an ideological schism that needs to be dealt with from within the religion, within the region, and then, of course, within countries like ours that are targets of that radicalism.
GAZETTE: What are the long-term implications for France and the European Union more broadly from a political and social standpoint, and how will this affect issues like border security and the Syrian refugee crisis?
BURNS: This is a very unsettling time for the Europeans because they’ve come through, in the last five years, a great crisis pertaining to the future of the Eurozone, which is an existential crisis for the European countries. They’ve gone through the great debt crisis that rattled everyone. And now they’re facing the greatest influx of refugees into Europe since the end of the Second World War. And that has divided the European Union. Some countries like Germany, under Angela Merkel’s leadership, have opened the door in a very compassionate way to refugees. Other countries have slammed the door shut, from Hungary to Poland to the Czech Republic to Slovakia to Bulgaria. And the European Union, of course, has the Schengen Area, which promises the free movement of labor. That’s beginning to break down. And you’re also seeing the rise of right-wing nationalist forces in many countries, particularly in France with Marine Le Pen, and the fear is that those right-wing nationalist groups, some of them quite bigoted, some of them racist, might prevail in the polls, or do much better in the polls because European people are worried. They’re worried about stability in their society; they’re worried about being overwhelmed by all these threats.
GAZETTE: What will or should France and the U.S. do? Is there an effective way to defend against a suicidal ideology?
BURNS: We will prevail in the end, we democracies, because we’re stronger. We have stronger values, and we’ll have far greater public support than these terrorist groups can ever earn. But I think it’s clear that this is going to be a long fight. The Islamic State and the other terrorist groups that are brutalizing the Syrian people are not going to vanish soon. They need to be fought at their source; they need to be fought in a very organized way. So just as after 9/11, there needs to be a supreme effort by the Western countries to coalesce. If you think about the assets at our disposal, I would list military as the last. We need better intelligence cooperation to find out where they are. We need law enforcement and judicial cooperation to apprehend them and to try them and jail them in our own systems. We certainly need financial cooperation to find the sources of their revenue and to dry that up and block them. That’s critically important. And we need a sense of unity, and that’s where diplomacy comes in. I think President Obama’s most important role — if he chooses to play this role, and I hope he does — is to be the rallying point for the European countries, for the Arab world to join in, for the Turks to join in, in order to unite our efforts against this organization and the other terrorist groups.
Military force can be, obviously, very helpful, but you need all those other instruments in place for it to be effective. These are some of the lessons that the Europeans learned in the ’70s and ’80s as they fought those indigenous terrorist groups. It’s certainly in hindsight after 9/11 the better way to fight a big, powerful terrorist organization. There’s no doubt in my mind that we will prevail in the end, but it’s going to be a long, costly and, I’m afraid, a very violent time.
KAYYEM: No. I think the range of options just expanded in the sense that France just recently committed militarily to the war against ISIS. I think that will increase. I don’t compliment this, but I’m just reflecting what I would anticipate will be a major change in how these countries deal with Syrian refugees. To me, that’s just not a long-term solution. They are still going to be refugees, so if you hold them in detention camps or other places, that’s hardly going to limit radicalization. But I fear that’s going to be the solution to head off the growth of right-wing politics in Western Europe.
GAZETTE: Do you expect that Europe and/or the U.S. will dramatically change the way we confront ISIS?
KAYYEM: I would suspect that there would be increased military action, only because the military action is working. That’s what we have to remember, that there have been successes for the last six months in the war on ISIS, and so there are going to be these responses by ISIS where we live, in Western Europe, or lone wolves here in the United States. But the military effort is not going to combat those guys. It’s going to mean a greater commitment to intelligence and intelligence sharing, and probably changes privacy rules throughout Europe. After the [Edward] Snowden surveillance disclosures, the pendulum swung very much into stopping a lot of the intelligence efforts, and of course Europe was not pleased about what we were doing. My suspicion is that Europe is going to reexamine its response to the Snowden disclosures, and you’re going to get a greater surveillance apparatus in those countries. There’s a huge debate about it, about whether that’s good or bad, but I just anticipate that will be what’s going on.
I think we’re using every tool, so it’s not like there’s some magic pixie dust. There’s a commitment to military, intelligence, diplomacy, a Syrian solution, countering violent extremism. None of them is easy.
GAZETTE: Is this kind of coordinated attack on civilians likely to happen again soon in Europe or the U.S?
BURNS: I’d be irresponsible to predict anything like that, but I think we have to assume that the terrorists will want to continue to strike at Europe, as well as at the United States and Canada. And so we’re counting a lot on our homeland security. We have to be vigilant from a counterterrorism perspective. We’ve put a lot of money and effort into improving our defenses since 9/11. They’re very, very good at the federal level [and] at the state level. Very strong. But no system is ever perfect, and so we have to remain vigilant. This is job number one for all of us — to defend our country, our borders. But we’re not in it alone. This is an international fight.
KAYYEM: I would start from the assumption yes. People in homeland security like me, the best we can do is to minimize the risk and to try to lower it, but you’re never going to get it to zero. Our country is so big and so vast and so open, so diverse, that to conceive of a world in which there’s zero risk is unimaginable. We wouldn’t be American in that way. So part of it is supporting the border efforts, intelligence efforts, but also the changes within homeland security that have begun to focus on: response, recovery, resiliency in anticipation that bad things might happen.
GAZETTE: What does this mean for free societies if these events continue or devolve even further?
BURNS: It means that we need strong and clear leadership to tell us how we can all contribute to protect our free society from this nihilistic, anti-democratic force called the Islamic State. We need to be careful that we safeguard our civil freedoms as we prosecute our struggle against terrorism. Some of the lessons of the post-9/11 environment are very important in that respect to maintain our civil freedoms here at home, to protect our constitutional rights. I don’t think there is a tradeoff here. Democratic societies, if you think about our history in the First and Second World Wars, in the Cold War, in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we should be able — we must be able — to prosecute wars against extremist, violent forces while protecting our democracy here at home. That’s something I think we have to be very mindful of as well.
There have been calls over the last two or three days by some politicians in the United States, but also in Europe, that we should now close our doors to refugees because of the assumption that these attackers, some of them, might have come as refugees into Europe. I think, first of all, it’s too soon to know exactly who these young men were. So we have to wait and see what the facts represent. Secondly, in my view, it would be a grave, grave misjudgment if we decided to close our borders to refugees because the United States has always, under Republican and Democratic administrations, welcomed refugees. We’re a refugee immigrant nation. Remember that Albert Einstein, Henry Kissinger, and Madeleine Albright all came to this country as refugees. It’s very important that we keep our doors open.
At a time when Germany is going to take in perhaps close to a million refugees in the next year and a half or so, for the United States to say we’ll only take in 10,000 refugees is not consistent with the generosity of the American people, the American government, that we’ve shown in all previous refugee crises going back to the Second World War. I don’t think the Paris attacks should convince us that suddenly we should become a closed society and dig a moat around the country and pull up the drawbridges. I think that would be exactly the wrong response. There are hundreds of thousands of people who are going to need resettlement, mainly in Europe and in the Arab world, but some should come to the United States. Of course, we’re going to have to vet every refugee for security reasons; we do that as a matter of course. But we must continue to accept them. That’s the right thing to do, that’s the American thing to do, and I think that’s an important thing to say now.
KAYYEM: I think it means that there is a heightened level of risk right now of living in these free societies, given the threat that we face. It is still de minimis compared to the risks we face every day. What I tell people — and part of my upcoming book is called “Security Mob: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home” — is really also preparing people, communicating with kids, and having plans that are in place should something occur. All of those things are obligations of citizens living in a free society.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Harvard keys into travelers
On learning of the attacks in Paris Friday night, Harvard Global Support Services (GSS) and members of the international emergency management team from each Harvard School immediately began reaching out to all Harvard faculty, staff, and students known to be in the region and confirm they were safe.
“Although we’re relieved and grateful, we’ll continue to monitor the situation. We encourage all travelers in Paris, or those traveling there soon, as well as those traveling to any international destination, to keep their travel details current in the Harvard Travel Registry,” said Steve Taylor, associate director for international safety and security for GSS. “As the latest attacks demonstrate, serious incidents can occur anywhere. Knowing where our affiliates are abroad during a time of crisis saves valuable time, and so we are ready to support Harvard travelers wherever there is need.”
Taylor acknowledged the potential for future incidents. “Travelers can expect to see increases in military and police personnel, higher security warning levels, and enhanced border controls in France and in many Western European countries. We will continue to follow events closely through our regular monitoring of government, commercial, and private intelligence sources.”
“It’s important to remain calm, cooperative, and vigilant. Travelers should carry proper identification at all times, and allow extra time to pass through security. And while it may be compelling to join solidarity movements and marches, it is safest to avoid large protests, even if they are peaceful.”
Taylor reminded Harvard travelers abroad in need of security or medical assistance or advice to call Harvard Travel Assist at +1-617-998-0000. Anyone with security concerns ahead of upcoming travel abroad should contact GSS for advice.