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Images of Terror Part I: Pictures of War

Images of Terror Part I: Pictures of War

By: Roland Fischer-Vousden

As I type events continue to unfold and the subject is cast in new light and forever more grotesque angles. Different fragments emerge: the attack has been claimed by IS (Islamic State), whilst France has invoked article 42.7 calling for the support of states in the EU – the picture is of worlds at war.

As I type events continue to unfold and the subject is cast in new light and forever more grotesque angles. Different fragments emerge: the attack has been claimed by IS (Islamic State), whilst France has invoked article 42.7 calling for the support of states in the EU – the picture is of worlds at war. With 128 new raids by French police after 23 arrests were made yesterday, a narrative of the perpetrators is also emerging: the orchestrator of events, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, appears to have been born in Molenbeek, Belgium and was a French national. His childhood friend, Salah Abdeslam, is still on the run – he rented the black VW found near the Bataclan. Abdeslam’s brother was the suicide bomber outside the Comptoir Voltaire café. Omar Ismail Mostefai, the first to be named, was French and known to their police. Bilal Hadfi, another French national living in Belgium, was one of two men to have exploded themselves outside the State de France. A Syrian passport was found near his accomplice, but it transpired the document was fake; it has been claimed that he passed through Greece as a refugee. Samy Amimour, born in northern Paris, was one of three gunmen who shot music fans attending the Eagles of Death Metal gig. Up to 20 may have been involved in the attack, many of whom had been to Syria and are thought to have been trained by IS. The investigations span Europe – just today, two women and a man linked to the attack have been arrested north-east of Aachen, Germany.

How should we piece these images together into a coherent picture? Each new mirror-fragment of information distorts our image of the events – both the personal psycho-image and the collective understanding. The first mental impression, after shock and compassion, is of huge swathes of media coverage and proclamations of solidarity with the French people. Some have highlighted the lack of interest or show of solidarity with civilians in Syria or Iraq, who are subjected to atrocities daily. However valid the point, violence so close to home shocks in a way that attacks further afield, for better or for worse, do not: this is more brute fact, an emotional response, than a deliberate moral choice. Given the proximity and magnitude of the attacks, it seems that IS’s violence, and the fallout from our engagement in the Middle East, is once again very much on our doorsteps: IS is employing global tactics.
 

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But the portrait of IS as a single state responsible for attacking another is too simplistic: IS may have claimed to be the source of the attacks, but there are a myriad of groups who support, arm and fund. We do not yet have a clear picture of where all of the attackers came from, indeed a lot of them were French nationals born either in France or Belgium, and trying to squeeze these atrocities into a single, homogenous enemy is unlikely to give rise to fruitful and effective policy. Assuming this was at least partially coordinated by IS raises the question: why has IS decided to attack in an Al-Qaeda-esque manner now? It may partially be a case of burying bad news; not only was Mohammed Emwazi, the emblematic Jihadi John, probably killed in a US-airstrike, but, IS also lost strategically important locations: Sinjar in northern Iraq and al-Hawl in north-eastern Syria on Friday. However, to characterise this as a last gasp effort from a force losing the battle at home, is to tread dangerously. With such short memories we forget the Hydra nature of extremism: retaliate strongly and we risk cutting one head off only for others to rise in its place.
  
François Hollande has already attempted to create his own image of this attack – an image of nations at war. He named the attack an “act of war” and his choice of words is important for two very different reasons. Defining the violence as war immediately gives credence to the attackers and plays into the rhetoric of IS: acts of war are committed by sovereign states. It also suggests that there is one centralised place to hit that could cut the problem at its source and there is a strong sense of Groundhog Day in Hollande’s choice of words: they mirror those of George W. Bush following the attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon in 2001. Bush sought to define the attack as an act of war in order to legitimise a US act of self-defence (i.e. retaliation). After the intensified bombing of IS today and yesterday, and his evocation of article 42.7, does Hollande pursue this construction to legitimise committing troops? The picture, seductive because it offers an answer to events, isn’t whole: more attention needs to be paid to the motivation of the culprits and their place in their societies.

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