Europe News

Throwing Books instead of Bombs: A holistic and historical analysis of the politics that brought us to Paris

Story by Amy Hood |

The Paris Attacks, Unpacked

On the evening of the 13th of November, within a span of an hour, the city of Paris, France witnessed six separate acts of terror. The first was outside a stadium that housed the French president, François Hollande. Prevented from entering, a man in a suicide vest detonated the bombs strapped to his chest, killing himself and one passerby. Just ten minutes go by before another suicide bomber detonated his vest at a different stadium entrance. A third suicide bomber, wearing an identical vest, follows in the footsteps of his colleagues in blowing himself up outside a fast food restaurant a little over twenty minutes later. Not far away, gunfire erupted in the popular nightlife neighborhood of the 10th arrondissement, targeting a bar and a restaurant and killing 15 people. A few streets south, more gunfire erupted in front of a café and a pizzeria and took five more lives. Another 19 people died as gunmen unloaded their weapons for a three-minute period on the terrace of La Belle Équipe bar, making this attack the second deadliest of the night.

At 9:36 PM, another suicide bomber detonated his vest, killing himself and another person with him. The longest and bloodiest attack of the evening was the gunning down of 89 people in the Bataclan. The gunmen used assault rifles to fire indiscriminately into the crowded hall. Witnesses report that one of the assailants shouted “God is Great!” in Arabic; another is said to have denounced French President’s intervention in Syria. The attack lasted forty minutes and incited the involvement of elite security forces, who shot one of the gunmen. The attack ended with the other two gunmen detonating their suicide vests. In total, the attacks perpetrated in Paris within that hour took 129 lives and were brought about by a team of nine people, all of which except one were under 30 at the time of the attacks. The next morning, the Islamic State released a statement, taking responsibility for the attacks; their motive was to “teach France, and all nations following its path, that they will remain at the top of the Islamic State’s lists of targets, and that the smell of death won’t leave their noses as long as they partake in their crusader campaign” (Fang).

Actors of many different breeds, from investigative journalists to government officials, work tirelessly to formulate comprehensive answers to explain how terrorists managed to slip through the cracks of the system. “How did this happen?” is answered with detailed reports on every footstep the perpetrators made before their crimes were committed. At its heart, these types of articles play a very long game of “what-if” in which they lay out all the moments where, if our security forces had worked just a little better, or our borders were just a little more secure, we could have staved off terror from seeping its way into our homes and cities. Within a week of the attacks, the New York Times had published a full spread, outlining the eleven months prior to the attacks in which the suspected organizer of the Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, spent plotting terror (Higgens and de Freytas-Tamura). The effects of this mentality have already been felt across Europe, whose once-tight purse strings have loosened to allow for spending on security measures. France is spending nearly one million Euros a day on its defense, just one example of a larger trend of increased military spending in the region (Alderman).

While natural and somewhat logical, this response is short-sighted and ultimately temporary. Heightened military spending can only last so long, especially within the EU, whose financial woes have created a culture of austerity measures since the debt crisis hit in 2010 (Alderman). More importantly, this mentality skims over the complexities of how an organization like ISIS has grown to such prominence. When we only question “how” and completely forget to include “why,” we find ourselves offering large sums of money for Band-Aid-style solutions that simply cover up the ugliness of the problem but do little to heal the wound beneath. This is not to say that defense spending is futile; rather, it is to propose that the problem is far more complex and deep-seeded than such solutions suggest. Understanding Paris holistically – namely, starting to address the “why” and not just the “how” – involves tracing the steps of ISIS as a whole, and not just one of its more famous militants.

The Birth of Islamic State

One thing is clear: the group has been an actor under many names for something close to a decade, even if its political muscle is relatively recent. When U.S. forces were present in Iraq, the early version of the Islamic State, not yet functioning under that name, was practically decimated with a mere estimated 700 adherents. American presence was effective in stamping out their numbers in a physical way; troops were withdrawn with the pride of this supposed success. The Iraq that was left behind, however, failed to meet the promises it made in calls for peace. It was not as hospitable to cooperating Sunni tribes as it initially committed to. The notion of the need for survival for Sunnis who found themselves in an unstable country that had failed to meet their commitments was a fear that terrorist groups capitalized on. It was one that the Islamic State was particularly talented at exploiting.

During this period of reduced numbers, the budding Islamic State reorganized its strategy. A detailed plan was formed that included several key points including co-opting the Sunni tribes for support, and a media strategy whose goals were twofold: inspiring fear in those who would oppose them, and recruitment for those susceptible to radicalization. It was in this brief reflection period in which the Islamic State, already aiming to take control of land, created the modern military plan and strategy which marks its present-day form (Fisher). Reaching its current level of prominence was not something that 700 adherents could accomplish on their own, however. ISIS would not be the deadly force it is today if not for the Syrian civil war, which provided the hotbed of conflict that allowed the flourishing of ISIS.

Syria, for its part, had caught the fire of an Arab Spring it never planned to take part of. Syria’s population had suffered five years of devastating drought, a drought so bad it forced some 1.5 million farmers into destitution, incited mass migration into Syria’s cities, and killed off nearly 85% of Syria’s livestock from 2006 to 2011. Syria’s government did little to mitigate the situation: President Bashar al-Assad’s Syria granted well rights along political lines, forcing farmers to drill their own illegal wells. Those who spoke out against the regime were brutally silenced through imprisonment, torture, or death. This stressor arrived upon a country that was witnessing revolution erupt all around it, and combined with mass migration into Syria’s already overpopulated cities, it was nothing short of a political situation waiting to explode. By July of 2011, hundreds of thousands of people were protesting, demanding the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad (Quinn and Roche). In the years of conflict to come, the situation took on increasingly sectarian overtones: pitting the Sunni majority against the President’s minority Alawite sect, the Kurds claiming territories to the north, and several radical militant organizations claiming territory to the east and west. These organizations include Lebanon-based Hezbollah, and ISIS, were once crippled from American forces in Iraq. The world struggled to act and failed to provide solutions; the American people were tired of involving itself in the region (Fisher). The once-small Islamic State had found the room to grow.

The rest of the story is the one the majority of us are already acquainted with. Most of us are familiar with the terrorist organization who, by June 2014, had finally taken on its current name of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, simultaneous with when it took control of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. We have heard of the organization who controls large swaths of land between Iraq and Syria, destroying a century-old border (Fisher). The terrorist group turned pseudo-state who, in tandem with gross human rights violations within their controlled territories, has declared war on western countries, an act that has caught the attention of the international community. After all, this is the self-declared caliphate who, as huge part of an increasingly deteriorating situation in Syria, has spurred the worst refugee crisis since World War Two, half of whom are children (World Vision).

Islamic State has accomplished much for an organization that, a little over five years ago, commanded the allegiance of less than a 1000 people. That once-small organization, through the fantastic tool of fear in the aftermath of Paris, spurred global reaction. A total of 31 American governors declared their states as unwelcoming to Syrian refugees in the aftermath of Paris (Fantz and Brumfield). Meanwhile, the United States’ House of Representatives passed the “SAFE” (American Security Against Foreign Enemies) act soon after, legislation that would have forced Syrian and Iraqi refugees to undergo personal FBI review had it not failed in the Senate at the beginning of this year (“H.R. 4038: American SAFE Act of 2015”). Most recently, ISIS proudly took ownership of the loss of those 129 lives in Paris.

Learning to Fight an Ideology Holistically

The point of this exercise is not to suggest that the United States’ role in Iraq is solely responsible for the rise of ISIS, or to mortally condemn the actions of our leaders in the ever-present need to act when horrors like Paris happen to us. It is a very human reaction to desire action in the face of a threat, especially one as terrifying as ISIS. Instead, it is to recognize that, at the core of radicalized groups such as ISIS, is an ideology, a call to action based on a warped interpretation of the world and of religion. Ideologies, especially ones like the powerful, brutal, and extremist philosophy of ISIS, are not stamped out by bombs. They are not mortally wounded with the loss of individual leaders within their movement. Efforts can be made to wipe dangerous individuals off the playing field, but they are useless in preventing the constant stream of militants willing and ready to assume the role of leaders lost.

When we look at events like Paris, we have a tendency to distance ourselves from the heart of the problem. We label radicals like Mr. Abaaoud as a “Belgian national” in efforts to create a distinction between “Belgian” and “terrorist.” We fail to recognize that every single one of the perpetrators of Paris was born in and lived in Europe. Instead of asking ourselves deeply reflective questions, considering what internal social trends fuel the radicalization of individuals within our own societies, considering what power ideologies like ISIS have within our own communities, we subtly create a dangerous yet ever-familiar dichotomy of “us” versus “them.” We want to say that Paris happened because of the actions of one evil human’s drive to let the world burn, and because of a larger terrorist organization that came into being simply because the nature of the world is to foster evil. We want to assert that this person was not Belgian, but simply a resident of Belgium who happened to claim its citizenship.

While this analysis is not entirely wrong, it fails to boldly look at the whole picture. These events did in fact happen because of the acts of one radicalized individual who wanted to bring about death to the world. But they also happened because the ideology that ISIS offers is attractive to many, and not just people originating from a certain part of the world. When our governments react by desiring to keep refugees out, we assert that Americans and westerners are immune to this ideology, and that the core of the problem is one associated with a religion or a nationality. We use bombs to combat it because, on some subconscious level, we believe that it originates in a specific place and is fueled by individual leaders. We believe that, if we could just decimate those who subscribe to an organization within a certain place, or kill off all the leaders who guide its growth, we will have solved the problem.

The conflict in Syria, and the Islamic State which continues to grow, are by no means problems that will have one-sided solutions. Peace, when it comes, will be slow, costly, and hard-won. This exploration is probably best ended with the words of Shirin Ebadi, 2003 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Iran’s first female judge: “An ideology cannot be fought with bombs. This wrong ideology can only be fought with a correct interpretation of religion. Had books been thrown at people, at the Taliban, instead of bombs, and had schools been built in Afghanistan […] at this time, we wouldn’t have had ISIS […] I want to ask the United States and the Western world to throw books at people. You will see that we will have a better world in the future.”[1]


“H.R. 4038: American SAFE Act Of 2015”. Web. 17 Feb. 2016.

Ebadi, Shirin. Iranian Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi On Nuclear Deal, Islamic State, Women’s Rights. 2015. TV.

Alderman, Liz. “Terror Threats Thaw Budgets Across Europe”. The New York Times 2015. Web. 17 Feb. 2016.

Fang, Marina. “Timeline Of The Paris Attacks And Aftermath”. The World Post 2015. Web. 17 Feb. 2016.

Fantz, Ashley, and Ben Brumfield. “More Than Half Of The Nation’s Governors Say Refugees Not Welcome”. CNN 2015. Web. 17 Feb. 2016.

Fisher, Ian. “In Rise Of ISIS, No Single Missed Key But Many Strands Of Blame”. The New York Times 2015. Web. 17 Feb. 2016.

Higgins, Andrew, and Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura. “Paris Attacks Suspect Killed In Shootout Had Plotted Terror For 11 Months”. The New York Times 2015. Web. 17 Feb. 2016.

Quinn, Audrey, and Jackie Roche. “What Is The Role Of Climate Change In The Conflict In Syria?”.Upworthy. N.p., 2015. Web. 17 Feb. 2016.

World Vision,. What You Need To Know: Crisis In Syria, Refugees, And The Impact On Children. 2016. Web. 17 Feb. 2016.


[1] For the full interview, visit: or visit the bibliography of this paper.

%d bloggers like this: