Destroying the Greyzone: The theory behind the Paris attacks

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At 9:20pm on November 13, three explosions were heard inside the Stade de France as France played host to Germany in an international football game.

Believing these to be smoke bombs or harmless flares, many fans cheered as each bang reverberated around the stadium, and the game continued as normal.

Minutes later, and unbeknownst to those inside the Stade de France, a lone gunman lay siege to both a café and Cambodian restaurant in north-east Paris, killing 14 people before fleeing the area.

On Rue de Charonne, just a mile and a half south-east of the scene of the last shooting, another heavily-populated building was targeted, this time by two gunmen who stormed a popular bar and embarked on a three-minute shooting spree that resulted in 19 deaths.

The three attacks were characterised by extreme brutally, but the evening’s deadliest incident was yet to come.

Inside the Bataclan, an historic theatre on Boulevard Voltaire in the east of the city, a sellout crowd were enjoying a rousing performance from the American rock band Eagles of Death Metal.

About an hour into the show, four men calmly walked into the theatre, cocked their AK-47 assault rifles, and opened fire on the crowd.

Over the course of a 20-minute rampage, the gunmen sprayed bullets into anything and everything in their path, shooting indiscriminately at concertgoers as they desperately attempted to flee.

They took dozens of people hostage, initiating a standoff with police that lasted for almost three-and-a-half hours.

After the Bataclan was stormed by special forces in the early hours of November 14th, three of the attackers detonated their suicide vests, while a fourth was shot by the police during a fierce gunfight.

In all, 129 people died as a result of the attacks, the deadliest that France had witnessed since the end of the Second World War.

The morning after, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the violence, announcing in a statement released by their media organ, the Al-Hayat Media Group, that the attacks were “just the beginning” and that “the scent of death will not leave their [France’s] nostrils as long as they partake in the crusader campaign [the airstrikes against ISIS]”.

Despite what was initially perceived as the mindless brutality of the group’s attack on Paris, they were clearly a coordinated and carefully planned effort to not only inflict physical damage on its victims, but mental harm as well.

These attacks can therefore be seen as an example of ISIS’s philosophy of “the Greyzone”, a concept that they continuously seek to destroy.

Violence with a purpose

The first Paris attacks on January 7, 2015 resulted in the deaths of 17 people in what was seen as a symbolic strike on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, a publication that, to many in the West, represented free speech and secularism.

While not claiming responsibility for the attacks, ISIS initially endorsed them on religious grounds, with the group’s official radio station, Al-Bayan, saying that the murdered Charlie Hebdo staff members were “blasphemers” and the attackers “heroes”.

However, ISIS then expanded on their thoughts on the attacks in an article posted in Dabiq, their online magazine, the following month.

Praising the attack that “further brought division to the world”, the organisation boasted that it had polarised society and “eliminated the Greyzone” that exists between members of Western countries.

It is within this final phrase that ISIS’s true motives can be found, and they relate not only to both of this year’s attacks in Paris but to every major decision made by the organisation.

Photograph by Roberto Maldeno via Flickr CC.

Parisian mourners pay their respects to the dead. [Roberto Maldeno via Flickr CC]

ISIS went on to describe this philosophy in great detail in the Dabiq statement:

“The presence of the Khilāfah [caliphate] magnifies the political, social, economic, and emotional impact of any operation carried out by the mujāhidīn [jihadists] against the enraged crusaders [the West].

“This magnified impact compels the crusaders to actively destroy the Greyzone themselves, the zone in which many of the hypocrites and deviant innovators living in the West are hiding.

“The Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one of two choices. They either apostatise and adopt the kufrī [infidel] religion…so as to live amongst the kuffār [infidels] without hardship, or they perform hijrah [emigrate] to Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the crusader governments and citizens.”

The ‘Greyzone’ describes the peaceful co-existence between religious groups in the West, with particular emphasis on, in the view of ISIS, the relationship between Muslims and other citizens of Western countries.

Western countries have developed the Greyzone, under the auspice of multi-culturalism, over a number of decades, but ISIS believe it is an insult to Islam; in their worldview, Muslims should not recognise any other authority than Allah’s, and that includes foreign governments.

Through the most recent attacks on Paris, and all previous large-scale murders carried out by ISIS members in both Europe and the Middle East, the organisation aimed to drive a wedge between Muslims and the rest of Western society.

This, in the eyes of ISIS, would result in distrust and hostility between the two sections, resulting in Western Muslims turning against the West before eventually migrating to the Islamic State caliphate to “escape the persecution from the crusader governments and citizens”.

A philosophy born in Iraq

ISIS have a history of pursuing similar goals with devastating effect.

In the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the group Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (TQJBR), a predecessor of ISIS, deliberately provoked a sectarian civil war in Iraq in an attempt to increase the tension between the Sunni and Shia Muslim population and, ultimately, push members of the former towards their organisation.

This was confirmed by Abu Musab Zarqawi, the then leader of the group, who said in a letter to Osama bin Laden in 2004: “If we succeed in dragging them [Iraqi Sunnis] into the arena of a sectarian war, it will become possible to awaken the inattentive Sunnis as they feel imminent danger and annihilating death.”

Photograph by Red Cross by Flickr CC.

Refugees attempt to enter the EU via the Serbia-Croatia border. [Red Cross by Flickr CC]

While the religious and ethnic situations greatly differ between Iraq and Europe, the aims of TQJBR and ISIS in both circumstances show clear similarities, as have the heavy-handed responses from governments within the two.

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Western governments swiftly initiated several measures in an attempt to crack down on Islamic extremism while simultaneously projecting a general unease and, often, open distrust and dislike of Muslims, particularly in Eastern Europe.

In one of the most notable examples, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán – arguably Europe’s only far-right leader – has this year embarked on building a 109-mile fence along his country’s border with Serbia and Croatia in an attempt to stem the flow of refugees entering the country.

Meanwhile, even before the most recent attacks in Paris, Slovakia’s leftist leader Robert Fico refused to take in any refugees, despite the European Union’s (EU) relocation plan asking the country to house just 802 people.

The unease brought about by the Western leaders’ increasingly prominent actions has resulted in a large number of incidents of anti-Muslim violence and hate speech across the continent.

The rise of the right

Linked to this is the increase in membership that far-right parties and movements have enjoyed, which has been witnessed across Europe, from France’s Front National – who have been leading the way in several of the most recent presidential election opinion polls – to the far-right Jobbik party in Hungary and the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident (Pegida) street movement in Germany.

The latter group have seen their popularity surge to previously unimaginable heights as the year has progressed, resulting in their transformation from a largely ignored Facebook group to an organisation that can now entice thousands of people to join their protests.

One march in Dresden at the start of 2015 attracted 25,000 people to the centre of the city, while a rally organised by the group on November 16th (also in Dresden) saw one of Pegida’s highest-ranking officials blame the recent Paris attacks on the immigration policies of the European countries.

“The attacks didn’t come out of nowhere,” Siegfried Daebritz told the crowd. “They are the result of an immigration policy that invites people from completely foreign cultures with completely different values into countries and regions whose culture many of these immigrants despise.”

As highlighted by the words of Daebritz, the recent attacks in Paris run the risk of further inflaming the tensions currently felt by some sections of European society towards refugees from the Middle East.

Photograph by Strassenstriche via Flickr CC.

A Pegida protest in October 2015. [Strassenstriche via Flickr CC]

While these refugees, the vast majority of whom are the victims of violence and oppression in their home countries, are fleeing to Europe in an attempt to escape the brutality of ISIS, the tactic of groups such as Pegida to equate Islamic extremism with refugees runs the risk of not only stoking the flames of discontent currently being felt within the Greyzone but also of, by implication, endorsing ISIS’s view that Muslims and the West are locked in a fierce battle with one another.

Greyzone crumbling

The worry is that the increasing split between the two sections of society will only play into the hands of ISIS, something that Iyad El-Baghdadi, a human rights activist originally from the United Arab Emirates, was quick to point out in the immediate aftermath of the November 13th attacks.

“Eliminating the Greyzone and rendering a world as black and white as their own flag, that’s what ISIS wants,” he said. “A black and white world is ISIS’s strategic objective and is the perfect kind of world for them to absolutely thrive.

“Insisting to coexist isn’t just ‘moralising’ right now, it’s an absolute screaming strategic necessity, [as] anyone who attacks coexistence is an ISIS ally in their quest to eliminate the Greyzone.”

However, co-existence does not seem to be at the top of the agenda list for some European leaders, several of whom have used the attacks to project a black and white, ‘us-versus-them’ world view, one that echoes ISIS’s attempts to destroy the Greyzone.

Andrej Babiš, the deputy prime minister of the Czech Republic, is one major European figure to adopt such rhetoric, claiming in a video posted to Twitter that “Europe must at last start doing something” and “it will be necessary to close the Schengen border”.

Babiš’s reaction was echoed by the Law and Justice Party – the newly-elected leaders of Poland – who announced in the immediate aftermath of the events of November 13 that they would be refusing to house any refugees in the country.

“The decision of the European Council that we criticised – to allow refugees and immigrants relocation to all EU countries – still has the status of binding EU law,” Konrad Szymański, the Minister for European Affairs, wrote in an article for wPolityce.

“In the face of the tragic events in Paris, we do not see any political possibility of executing them. Poland must retain full control over its border, the policy on asylum, and migration.”

With an increasing number of European leaders using the attacks in Paris to curb immigration while simultaneously increasing their use of anti-refugee rhetoric, the concern now is that they will only increase the tension being felt in Western societies.

At a time when the continent should be coming together, it increasingly looks as if it is being torn apart at the seams.

What’s worse is that this is exactly what ISIS want, and if they’re not careful, Europe is in real danger of walking into their trap, with potentially devastating consequences.


Featured image by Eddy Clio via Flickr CC.

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