The Paris Attacks: A panel discusstion

On Nov. 19, the Penn State School of International Affairs hosted a multidisciplinary panel discussion about the terrorist attacks that occurred in Paris on Nov. 13.

Scott Sigmund Gartner, director and professor at the School of International Affairs and adviser to a U.S. agency facilitating the assessment of violent non-state actors, moderated.

Five Penn State professors joined Gartner on the panel: Jennifer Boittin, associate professor of French, Francophone studies and history; Joseph DeThomas, retired U.S. ambassador and professor of international affairs; Pete Hatemi, who teaches the Politics of Terrorism course and is a professor of political science; Carleen Maitland an associate professor of information sciences and technology and co-director of the Institute for Information Policy; and Catherine Rogers, professor of law and Paul and Marjorie Price Faculty Scholar at Penn State Law.

Gartner opened the discussion in front of an audience of over 200 people by asking Boittin why the terrorist attacks occurred in Paris.

Boittin explained that, historically, Paris is one of the most symbolic cities in the world. Beyond, the symbolism, France’s culture and its emphasis on secular society are values foreign to immigrants who moved to France and are raising families there. The French accentuate the pleasures in life and the politics of the country are completely removed from religion.

“The areas that were targeted are areas in which the French ways of life are prevalent, people in those areas were younger and having a good time,” she said. “And in Paris and in all of France, religion is a private issue, and the country focuses on keeping its religion private.”

DeThomas added that there is a simpler reason the attacks occurred in Paris, which is that the attackers had the “operational capability” and “because they could.”

Gartner then asked DeThomas about the strategic shift in attacks by Islamic State in places other than Syria or Iraq, and how to thwart these attacks.

DeThomas turned to the Islamic State’s view, in which the attacks are a war for territory where the group is trying to create a state. At first, the attacks focused on the operational area where they were trying to create a state and closely surrounding countries.

“As the conflict has expanded, its target list naturally expands as an enemy attacks your base area,” he said. “Additionally, ISIS is going after many big powers simultaneously because it has a need to show its membership and its potential recruits that it can strike back at big powers.”

Hatemi added to DeThomas’ response by explaining that ISIS is attacking major powers and is moving from an insurgency, to a state, to a terrorist organization because it’s a learning organization.

“It’s an innovative organization and it’s going to change its strategies, tactics, and goals based on the world situation, as any state, or any power would,” Hatemi said. “These are not crazed cowards bent on destruction, but [they are] highly rational, functional, using the resources that they can, and they will show that they can fight back.”

Maitland turned the discussion to the Syrian refugees, and refugees in general, and how the world is facing new kind of refugee. She explained that the current refugee population has grown up with Arab globalization, some with Internet access and mobile phones, and coming from middle-class background in Middle Eastern countries.

“They understand technology; they seek out online information; they use mobile apps to self-organize, and provide services to one another, in a way humanitarian organizations have struggled,” she said.

Rogers spoke to the legal status of ISIS, and its attempt to gain statehood. Under one international theory, to gain statehood, a group must have a permanent population, a defined territory, and a government, and must engage in international relations. Another theory claims that a group can’t be a state unless other states recognize it as a state.

“This is tough for them to meet, because no one wants to treat them like a state and have formal, international relations,” Rogers said.

After this discussion, the panel spent 45 minutes answering audience questions, and concluded with their final thoughts for the audience to consider. Maitland stressed remembering the role of the Internet in recruitment and organizing. Boittin and Rogers emphasized living without giving into the fear of terrorism and remembering the humanity in this situation. Hatemi reminded the audience an immediate solution is unrealistic, because this conflict came from the past 100 years, and needs a decades-long solution. DeThomas made the most passionate closing comment.

“The Syrians are not only faced with ISIS, but with Bashar al-Assad, and they are being victimized, and their lives are in deep danger,” he said. “If the U.S. cannot find a safe way to allow 10,000 people fleeing for their lives to come into this country, it is one of the most heartless and cowardly acts this country has committed since the Holocaust.”

Gartner closed the discussion by saying, “What’s going on is a battle of ideas, a battle of narratives, ideologies, and identities, and the solution is to come up with positive narratives, ideologies and identities, for this country, for the world, and the people who feel disaffected and disconnected.”

The entire panel discussion is available online on the SIA YouTube channel.