Matthew Fisher: Francois Hollande’s defiant cry to arms was hauntingly similar to George W. Bush’s 9/11 reaction

Beirut, Lebanon — A close friend of mine wrote from Paris on Saturday that a French army colonel had just told him, “Nous sommes en guerre, pour les Français qui s’en doutaient.”

The elegant statement that “for those French who might doubt it, we are at war,” corresponded closely to the defiant cry to arms against Islamic State that French President Francois Hollande made a few hours later. The statements were hauntingly similar to the initial reactions of U.S. President George W. Bush after Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks against the United States.

I was in Washington on that morning 14 Septembers ago. I reached the Pentagon about 20 minutes after an American Airlines jetliner slammed into it. On the same morning that terrorists brought down the iconic Twin Towers in New York, a stream of bloodied and dazed sailors and civilians staggered out of the headquarters of the strongest military in the as I walked right up to the smoldering gap in the wall because, in the chaos of that awful moment, security had collapsed.


There was horror and disbelief that day, not only that anyone would concoct such a diabolical plan, but that the multiple attacks could be so methodically and professionally organized. The early accounts from Paris speak of the same level of shock and outrage as well as bewilderment at the audacity, fanaticism and high level of coordination shown by the terrorists’ simultaneous attacks.

And here in Beirut, I saw the same trauma and anger on Friday in a badly damaged Shia suburb after a team of suicide bombers killed 43 people and wounded more than 240 others in a bazaar. This barbaric act was also claimed by ISIL, a zealous Sunni extremist group that regards itself as the guardians of a self-declared Islamic caliphate.

As happened after 9/11, NATO could invoke Article 5 of its charter because of what ISIL did in Paris. The clause states that an attack against a member state is an attack against all, warranting a collective response.

Bilal Hussein / APBilal Hussein / APLebanese army soldiers stand guard at the site of Thursday's twin suicide bombings in Burj al-Barajneh, southern Beirut.

Whether or not this view will be expressed publicly at the G20 summit in Turkey there will be disappointment with from its closest allies—as there already is among Syrian refugees in Lebanon—because of the new government’s decision to withdraw from a combat role against ISIL at a time when other western countries and Russia have been ramping up military operations.

The quandary that this now puts Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in brings to mind what former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan said when asked about the biggest challenge facing a leader.

“Events, my boy, events,” was his dry reply.

I have witnessed solo terrorist attacks in Jerusalem, Baghdad, Islamabad, Kabul, Kandahar and Erbil. They are tragedies that implant visceral images in the brain forever. A shoe seemingly forgotten with a foot in it here. A thumb in the dirt there. Heads without torsos. And on and on.

Never forget that creating panic and gaining publicity are the primary reason for all terrorist attacks. Taken individually these smaller events have often caused relatively little destruction. But each was inevitably followed by phone calls to news agencies to take credit for what happened.

What causes deeper concern is the ambition and global reach that ISIL has demonstrated with attacks earlier this fall against Turkish, Russian and Shia Lebanese targets. Every one of these attacks has been backed by a sophisticated information warfare machine that seldom contacts news organizations anymore because it can push out unedited propaganda online in multiple languages, with words like heretics, apostates and infidels.

On Friday, for example, ISIL boasted of evading Egyptian security checks to place a bomb on an airplane bound for St. Petersburg two weeks ago that blew up over the Sinai Peninsula killing 224 people. It taunted Russian President Vladimir Putin in a video by predicting that “soon, very soon, the blood will flow like an ocean,” across Russia.

NATO and Russia security officials will be especially concerned by what happened in Paris this weekend because three different groups of terrorists were able to attack targets all over the French capital at the same time. Further then that, multiple groups of terrorists were able to secretly infiltrate Paris with a bunker’s worth of weapons without their plans or their arsenals being revealed to intelligence services.

The assault in Beirut this week was more modest than other recent ISIL attacks, but impressive in its own sinister way. Three suicide bombers entered a crowded market on foot, followed by a fourth on a motor scooter. The first two bombers hit a crowded bakery and a building next to a mosque. The third was cut in half by one of those explosions before he could detonate the 10-kilogram bomb that he wore in a vest. Perhaps having lost his nerve, the fourth did not set his bomb off and was detained. As ISIL takes its war against civilians in Russia, France and Turkey and who knows where else, the forbidding disquiet about the future is undoubtedly more profound in Lebanon, the Paris of the Middle East, which cannot forget the sectarian and ethnic fire that tore it apart from 1975 to 1990.

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