Six unarmed men prevented “veritable carnage”, as France’s president put it, by tackling a Kalashnikov-wielding terrorist on a European train last week. They overpowered the 25-year-old Moroccan, Ayoub El Khazzani, who had already shot one passenger. They disarmed him and trussed him up like an oven-ready chicken.
One of the men, an off-duty US airman, nearly lost a thumb. All of them – American, British, French – risked their lives. They were lavished with French medals and much praise in America and European capitals and made headlines around the world. Everyone agreed that something significant had occurred that Friday and that it went beyond the heart-warming fact of extraordinary, death-defying, selfless heroism by ordinary people.
It is being read as an important lesson in how to live in an age of ever-present and escalating security alerts. In the sense that everyone must now accept that they are a conscript in what has been called the “forever war on terror”. In the popular idiom, everyone must be psychologically prepared to have a go at a presumed “bad guy” in a world in which freelance operatives are on the loose.
This is mostly because of the mutation of the extremist threat. In The New Threat, published today, British journalist and author Jason Burke describes the unpredictable, low-tech, self-starting atrocities that can happen anywhere as a “leaderless jihad”. It is a different entity from the better defined, more centred movement of the 1990s and early 21st century, he says, and is difficult to properly identify, prevent or stamp out because it is less organised and more sporadic.
He has a point. The leaderless jihad can never really be fought by professional militaries because the ongoing conflict has no defined frontline and no particular rules of engagement. It is often waged in the chaos of big cities, which sociologist Saskia Sassen described after the 2008 Mumbai attacks as the location for “a new kind of multi-sited war” that is asymmetric, partial, intermittent and will have no armistice to mark its end.
Or as French former field intelligence agent Claude Moniquet soberly stressed after the train incident: “Our societies must accept the very fact that we are at war with an enemy which counts dozens of thousands of ‘soldiers’, has an international presence (including inside our own borders), could at any moment attack any target in any country and is not afraid to shed innocent blood.”
Every week brings new warnings about the imminence of violence and it is in this context that a mass conscription mindset becomes an inevitable, if disturbing development with profound implications for social cohesiveness and stereotyping.
Just last week, Belgian Abdellah Noumane who has been in Syria for two years, declared on WhatsApp that “libraries, schools, hospitals, shopping centres and even nightclubs” in his home country were the new targets because “we no longer care about all the discussions regarding innocent victims”.
And security experts in Spain, where El Khazzani had lived for years, now say they believe that roughly 800 potential terrorists have returned to Europe after fighting or training with ISIL in Syria and Iraq. They are “not especially well trained”, the Spanish said, but “they are prepared to do anything and once they have been indoctrinated, they receive minimal training in the use of weapons”.
This is chilling stuff and the lack of training provides no comfort. Those who thwarted El Khazzani said he did not seem to be particularly well-trained in using his firearms. The terrorists who attacked tourists in Tunisia’s Bardo Museum and on the beach in Sousse were similarly bumbling.
According to intelligence estimates, about 6,000 Europeans are, or were involved in the fighting in Syria, which is to say they are known to have headed there. Some may have been killed in action, some still may be with their comrades in arms and some could be in transit to or from Europe. That makes for a relatively large number of active ISIL-supporters with ties to Europe, and then there are those who provide logistics.
Obviously governments cannot monitor all of them or even low-life vagrants like El Khazzani, who was on the authorities’ radar in three countries because it was suspected that he had been radicalised. Belgian interior minister Jan Jambon freely admits as much. Belgian intelligence, he said, had kept an eye on El Khazzani, but he was not “shadowed around the clock”, as there were just too many targets to track. As is customary after an incident, the French government has promised tighter security and improved vigilance, but in truth, it is already on a high terror alert.
This is why a people’s fightback – individuals making a stand against freelance extremists – assumes significance. “The lesson would be to do something … don’t just stand by and watch,” US student Anthony Sadler, one of the six men who disarmed El Khazzani, later said.
It is a message that governments may be increasingly anxious to promote. The BBC’s longtime Paris correspondent, Hugh Schofield, explained after the drama on the train that Mr Hollande’s extravagant praise for the six men was an attempt to shift individual behaviour away from passive fear. Standing up to fight “will shift the psychological battle in favour of our societies (and) governments know this”, Schofield said.
Perhaps. This would fundamentally change citizens’ post-9/11 responsibility from “see something, say something” to “see something, do something”. With all the inherent risks of any call to vigilantism.
Rashmee Roshan Lall is an itinerant writer on world affairs
On Twitter: @rashmeerl