News junkies will not need reminding that the world has become a much more dangerous place after the carnage on the streets of Paris this week, but confirmation that a destabilised Middle East is contributing to a spike in global terrorism comes with publication of the Global Terrorism Index 2015.
Much of the surge in terrorist deaths is directly related to the rise of Islamic State, adding to pressures on the West to expand its military campaign against IS in its strongholds in Syria and Iraq.
In Nigeria, Boko Haram, the African equivalent of IS, is leaving a trail of carnage in its wake, and in turn exerting enormous pressure on the government in Abuja.
Boko Haram has been joined in the latest global terrorism index as one of the principal perpetrators of terrorist violence by the hitherto little-noticed Fulani militant group, which is active across Nigeria and the Central African Republic.
In other words, Islamic terrorism, inspired by IS, is metastasising beyond the confines of the Middle East.
Compiled by the Institute for Economies and Peace, the index reflects an international environment that is extremely unstable, with no obvious solution for the causes of instability in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.
All this is feeding into geopolitical perceptions the world has entered a period of unusual instability and uncertainty.
The year 2014 was the worst year on record with an 80 per cent increase in terrorist deaths, or a total of 32,600 people. The point is that the bombings and shootings in Paris are part of a much broader trend that is feeding on itself.
Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan accounted for 78 per cent of terrorist-related fatalities in 2014: what has really fuelled a surge in terrorism is the rise of IS in both Iraq and Syria.
IS emerged as a potent force in 2013 two years after the beginning of the Syrian Civil War. Since then it has spread its tentacles across Syria and Iraq, and this is reflected in the numbers.
What is surprising about IS is the speed with which it has aggregated territory under its control – and, as we’ve seen this month, launched operations in Europe itself and, so it claims, against a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt.
This has all happened, seemingly, in the blink of an eye.
Growing appeal of IS
Iraq was hit hardest by terrorist violence in 2014. This corresponded with a murderous IS rampage across western and northern Iraq, in which thousands died as the organisation tightened its grip on towns like Mosul in the north of Iraq and Ramadi, west of Baghdad.
In all, nearly 10,000 people succumbed to terrorism in Iraq last year, 30 per cent of all such deaths. These are shocking numbers and attest to the destructiveness of an IS campaign.
What is certain is that we’ll see a jump in Syrian terrorism-related deaths in 2015, up from numbers in 2014. In the Global Index Syria accounted for about 5 per cent of such deaths in 2014.
This bleak outlook invites the question as to what might be done to stop the carnage and how best to understand the IS phenomenon.
Jessica Stern of Boston University’s School of Global Studies and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror, describes IS as a “threat unlike any other the West has faced in the contemporary era”.
“The problem is,” Stern writes, “as the Paris killings and the French counterattack indicate, the Islamic State is partly a totalitarian state and partly a transnational terrorist organisation.”
“As a state it can be attacked and defeated, at least temporarily. And yet, paradoxically, the more we in the West attack the state, the more its appeal as a terrorist organisation will grow among those who see the West as an enemy.”
Anthony Cordesman, of the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, has written extensively on how best to counter IS. His conclusion is that the West needs to resign itself to a long war.
In a paper published this week – Paris, IS, and the Rush to “War” – he cautions against precipitate action.
“It is all too easy to call for dramatic new military action, and draconian new security measures as part of a natural human reaction to the horrifying vents in Paris,” Cordesman writes. “There is, however, good reason for caution, for careful planning and analysis, for taking the time to build on previous efforts and ongoing improvements in counter-terrorism, and not leaping into massive military escalation.”
The Australian government’s own cautious approach was reflected in remarks this week by Defence Minister Marise Payne, when she was asked about Malcolm Turnbull’s suggestion Australia might consider sending peacekeepers to Syria as part of an attempt to police a ceasefire.
“Obviously these matters have to be considered very, very seriously in the cold harsh light of day,” Payne told the ABC. “We’re making the second largest contribution [to the US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria] at the moment … and if we are to enhance that or to change that in any way that will be a considered step-by-step by the Australian government.”
Turnbull himself addressed the issue in a press conference in Manila when he speculated about the possible shape of a ceasefire in Syria in which some sort of power-sharing arrangement might emerge.
“Where Syria, in an ideal world, would end up is with a regime or a form of government that involved power-sharing between the various groups,” he said. “Obviously, the example of Lebanon is one that springs to mind given its proximity – where there is representation for people of various religious groups.”
What is relevant – Turnbull and his advisers need to understand this – is that there is a world of difference between the situation in Syria, and in Lebanon following the 1946 expiry of the French League of Nations mandate.
In Lebanon, France was able to impose a power-sharing arrangement on various confessional groups in which Christians and Muslims divided power.
These arrangements have been bloodied by years of civil war, including the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), in which thousands were killed in a decade and a half of conflict that destroyed parts of Beirut and divided the city between Muslim and Christian enclaves.
Lebanon is hardly an oasis of calm today, buffeted as it is by a spillover from Syria. In theory, it might provide a model for a Syrian settlement but the essential difference is that, back in 1946, France was able to impose a power-sharing system.
In the midst of a raging civil war in which Syria’s ruler Bashar al-Assad only survives courtesy of Russian and Iranian support, it is hard to envisage a scenario in which a settlement can be imposed by outside powers.
In the meantime, the world will hear a lot more about a millenarian cult with global terrorist ambitions, as Jessica Stern puts it. Wearing IS down will take a lot of persistence. The Paris attacks are not the end of the story.
Tony Walker is The Australian Financial Review’s international editor and a former Middle East correspondent for the Financial Times.