PARIS — Just two weeks after the tragedy in Manchester, the United Kingdom has once again been hit by a terror attack. And it was carried out with a modus operandi we've become familiar with: A van rams into pedestrians in a busy area before the terrorists go on a killing spree, weapons in hand, and are eventually shot dead by police. The attack suggests it was more the doing of "rookies' than of experienced jihadists returning from the front lines in Iraq or Syria. Little material, little know-how. But a ferocious will to kill.
It's a self-evident fact, but nonetheless worth remembering: ISIS has revolutionized terrorism, in the same way that Uber and its ilk have shaken the economy. When you think about it, the process is very similar, all else being equal.
The old system was based on an oligopolistic, hyper-centralized and specialized market. Historically, terror organizations built themselves by mirroring traditional military structures. There was a clear hierarchy and their professional organization was strictly regulated. One organization would detect individuals, try and convince them that they're fighting for the right side, invest heavily to train them, equip them, and dispatch them abroad. They needed to organize networks, establish a supply chain. Terrorism was a serious business requiring time and money. Spectacular operations were complex. Thus they were rare.
ISIS has broken with the conventions of terrorism by liberalizing it entirely.
That was the 20th century. Things have changed since then. With ISIS came "Uber-terrorism." An online platform connects silent partners and service providers, all over the world. Like the founders of Uber, who created a service of private drivers-on-demand, allowing simple individuals to transport customers, ISIS has broken with the conventions of terrorism by liberalizing it entirely. Its stroke of genius was understanding that the workforce wasn't scarce but in fact overabundant, that all they needed to do to revolutionize terrorism was to bring down the barriers, ban the selection process and the cut out the middlemen.
ISIS understood that anybody with a score to settle against society was a terrorist in the making. All that's needed is to channel their hatred. For this 2.0 organization, terrorists in the making are a true "workforce," available like water from a faucet, one that can be opened and closed at will. Almost anybody can become a terrorist as long as they, at some point, want to or are made to want to. The economic model of Uberized terrorism is so perfect that wannabe terrorists are considered as individual contracting parties who are even responsible for the financing of the operation. ISIS gives a purpose to its "freelance entrepreneurs' and promises them fame. In exchange, they must bear responsibility for all the costs, including obtaining a vehicle, or weapons.
Against the revolution that this new form of terrorism represents, the targeted countries and their security forces are out of their depth. Never before did they face a danger so permanent, diffuse and generalized. In less than 10 years, the threat didn't just reach a new level. Its very nature changed. Our intelligence services, police and legal system need to constantly adapt to be able to fight against the two forms, or rather the two generations, of terrorists it faces today.
When it comes to jihadists returning from Iraq, Syria or Libya, our services have some useful experience. We are able, much of the time, to identify them, track them closely, and neutralize them. The bigger challenge are these new "freelance entrepreneurs' of terror who started appearing two or three years ago. If we're not careful, and if we keep on using the same tried and true methods against this unprecedented phenomenon, we risk sharing the same fate as the old heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in 1964 against the young, inexperienced but ambitious Muhammad Ali.
Time for a new security strategy
Never have the foundations of our liberal societies been put to such a severe test, at least not in peace time. Yes, we are currently at peace, despite the martial statements we're given. In war times, real war that is — like between 1914 and 1918 for instance — our ancestors had to accept the sacrifice of their individual rights and freedoms to save the country.
When a country is at war, the government establishes censorship, bans freedom of assembly and of movement, locks up dangerous opponents or dissidents, and doesn't hesitate to shoot those who collaborate with the enemy. All regimes, even democracies, give in to military discipline for the sake of the final victory. The state of emergency, like the one declared after the November 2015 attacks in Paris, though necessary and useful, is a joke compared to that.
The only anti-terrorist strategy that will give us the security we aspire to is one that will accept changing the rules of the game
We are obviously at peace. And in peace time, nothing is more sacred than individual freedoms and equality before the law. A few exceptions aside, the ruling principle is that a suspect is considered innocent until proven guilty. And that even after he's been proven guilty, he's more someone who must be reintegrated into society as quickly as possible rather than a culprit who must be isolated to protect the rest of the population. In short, in peace time, we refuse to "make an omelet by breaking eggs."
That being said, we aren't necessarily condemned to powerlessness. It's all about moderation, but more importantly about trust. The new French government currently has that trust from the public. No one suspects of it secret authoritarian leanings. And because it's liberal, we assume its commitment to the founding principles inherited from our Republican history. That's why it can, better than any other could, show boldness and resolution to defend our citizens and protect our country.
The only anti-terrorist strategy that will give us the security we aspire to is one that will accept changing the rules of the game. It will have to be based on an ambitious intelligence and anticipation policy, focusing on the early detection of potential terrorists. More means must also be allocated on the ground. Let's stop accumulating non-operational structures and put security personnel where the danger actually is. Against the Uberization of terrorism, we need to think differently. We need flexibility, innovation, and pragmatism.
*The author is a former special advisor on anti-terrorism to the French Interior Ministry.