THE BLOG

Responding to Paris, Unintended Consequences and the Road Less Traveled

16/11/2015 11:24 GMT | Updated 16/11/2016 10:12 GMT

As Europe wakes up this Monday, we grieve. Over 130 of our fellow citizens have been murdered and almost a hundred more are still fighting for their lives. In the aftermath of such a loss the burning desire to do something to avenge these deaths and prevent future attacks is almost overwhelming. We've already seen commentators calling for a strong military response from France and her NATO allies to wipe ISIS off the map.

We can say with reasonable certainty that ISIS were responsible for this; early reports indicate that they could have had a hand in the actual planning of the attack not just inspiring it. The image of a malign foreign power dispatching operatives to murder our civilians demands only one response, the eradication of that power.

However, this is not the whole story. Even if one of the attackers was in fact a Syrian, something that's far from certain, most of those responsible for spilling blood in Paris were European. They were born here, raised here, educated here. They were our brothers, our neighbours, our friends, and somewhere along the way we lost them. The eradication of the ISIS entity will not change that fact, though it may mask our pain for a time.

France has stepped up its bombing of ISIS held territory in recent days, but the destruction of the ISIS entity will take more than that. Boots on the ground, mass bombardment or a deal with the devil. It's almost impossible to imagine a situation without massive unintended consequences. The costs of occupation. The civilian cost of mass bombardment. The sickening prospect of a dictator who gasses his own people re-assuming full control with our help.

To carry out these attacks, training, planning, financing and weapons were all required and ISIS could certainly have helped with all of this. However the ability to plan and train effectively, secure weapons or finance an operation on this scale is not something which is rare in Europe, it's the willingness to do such things that is the real bottleneck. As such, that willingness is where we should focus our attention.

To fight this battle of ideas we could just pass laws tightly controlling the content our citizens can view online, what they can say and who they can listen to. But here again we come to unintended consequences of building a state apparatus designed to punish thought. Not to mention the fact that such restrictions would likely be ineffective in the first instance. So, what to do?

Throughout Europe there are dozens of programmes that specialise in dealing with angry young men, even those thought to be at risk of joining radical groups and carrying out mass violence. From CENTRI or the Active Change Foundation in the UK, through to Aggredi in Finland or the Hayat programme in Germany. However these groups are almost universally chronically underfunded and overwhelmed.

Earlier this year a methodology was piloted which allowed intervention providers to proactively identify those at risk of falling into the orbit of groups such as ISIS by analysing their online behaviors, and then to reach out to these individuals online and engage them in a conversation in an attempt to steer them away from violence and deal with any underlying issues that may be driving their social isolation. This methodology could be rolled out to community groups across Europe with relatively small amounts of money and few if any civil liberties implications.

Each jet flying sorties over ISIS held territory costs millions, the bombs being dropped cost ten of thousands a piece. So here is a modest proposal, let's aim for a 50-1 ratio for funding. For every fifty million spent on the military response to ISIS, let's aim to spend one ensuring that they find it as difficult as possible to raise recruits in the west.

Equipped with the training to employ proactive online engagement and the funding to do their work well, specialist workers like these should be the army we deploy against ISIS, to target that bottleneck and ensure that with all the training and financing in the world, they find it as difficult as possible to identify Europeans willing to murder their fellow citizens.