By sheer coincidence, a book I wrote called Don’t Panic: Islamic State, Terrorism and Today’s Middle East was published just before the terrorist attacks in Paris. So naturally everybody interviewing me about the book asked me if it is time to panic now. They couldn’t resist it. And of course I replied no, it is not time to panic.
If a train derailed in the Paris Metro, killing 130 people and injuring more than 300, the story would dominate the news in France for around 24 hours, 48 hours tops. In other countries it would definitely be only a one-day story: just one more transport accident, in a world where trains collide, planes crash and ships sink from time to time.
But if it’s not an accident – if human beings deliberately caused those deaths – then the media feeding frenzy starts. The story is 20 times as big, and it can dominate the news schedules for a week. Most people in Europe, North America and the Middle East have watched at least several hours of coverage of the Paris events and their aftermath – as long as a feature film – and even in more distant parts of the world it has been the event of the week.
There is nothing puzzling about this phenomenon. It’s perfectly natural for people to be more interested in murder than in mere mechanical malfunctions. But the sheer volume of the coverage makes a terrorist attack feel like a much bigger event than it actually is. Even if you live a very long way from where the real action is.
If you live in Syria, the threat isn’t just terrorism. Islamic State is already a major threat to the many Syrians it hates (Shias, Christians, Druze, and even Sunni Muslims who have worked for the government or fought in the army). If IS gained control of the whole country, the number of Syrian refugees would double or triple.
If you live in Iraq, you are much less at risk, for Islamic State has little hope of expanding into the Shia-dominated parts of the country still under Baghdad’s control, or into the areas under Kurdish control.
If you live in Turkey or other Arab countries – indeed, in any other Muslim country – you may face a serious threat from home-grown extremists, but all they get from IS is encouragement and maybe a bit of training. It’s really a domestic problem.
If you live in France or the United States or China, your only worry is the occasional terrorist attack that may have been encouraged by Islamic State – but the people who carry it out are mostly locals. You deal with that sort of thing just the way you dealt with other terrorist threats in the past: border controls, enhanced security measures at public events, and good intelligence.
If Western air forces want to bomb Islamic State too, by all means do so, but they will be all alone in that job. The Arab states that are allegedly part of President Obama’s “coalition” have all withdrawn their air forces and are bombing Yemen instead (under the delusion that the tribes of northern Yemen are really working for Iran). And the Turks are almost exclusively bombing the Kurds (including the Kurds fighting Islamic State).
The Russian and “coalition” (mostly American) bombs falling on Islamic State have stopped its expansion, at least for the moment, and the recent air attacks on the tanker-trucks that carry the black-market oil out have certainly cut into its income, but it is not about to fall.
As for “boots on the ground”, forget it. The only people fighting Islamic State on the ground are the Kurds and what’s left of the Syrian army after four years of war. The Syrian army was on the brink of collapse last summer before the Russian bombing campaign saved it, and it still lacks the strength to recapture much territory. Islamic State is going to be around for a while.
Stopping Western air attacks on Islamic State might save some Western cities from terrorist attacks, but even that is not guaranteed. Islamic State is competing with al Qaeda for support in the Muslim and especially the Arab world, and spectacular acts of terrorism are good recruiting tools. Islamic State also thinks it is following a divinely ordained script, which makes it relatively impervious to normal calculations of strategic advantage.
Does this mean terrorist attacks inspired by Islamic State will continue for months or years no matter what the West does? Probably.
Within living memory Western countries have fought real wars that killed millions of their citizens, and they didn’t buckle under the strain. The scale of the threat they face now is so much smaller that it is ridiculous to call it a war at all, and yet they flap about like frightened poultry.
If terrorist attacks on the scale of Paris are the greatest threat facing the West, then these are very fortunate countries.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.