Thursday's terror-by-truck attack in Nice, France, was shocking in its outcome — 84 people killed and hundreds injured — but not in its methods. Jihadis have long called on sympathizers to transform everyday vehicles into instruments of mass slaughter.
Six years ago, Al Qaeda’s English language magazine, Inspire — the publication that taught the Boston Marathon attackers how to manufacture pressure-cooker bombs — explicitly encouraged “lone wolves” to ram pedestrians with their cars. More recently, the Islamic State’s principal spokesman, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, has called for similar tactics. Over the past few years, vehicle attacks without the use of explosives have taken place from Israel to Canada.
But the sheer scale of the carnage in Nice represents a chilling new development, and one that prompts justified fears of copycat attacks — and raises questions about what, if anything, can be done. If something as ordinary as a truck can cause so much death, is there any real hope for stopping terrorism?
In France, the answer seems to be no. “The times have changed,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls said. “France is going to have to get used to terrorism.” Citizens on social media expressed a similar sense of fatigue.
Mr. Valls is surely right to play down expectations of a quick fix: Terrorism is a notoriously intractable problem that, even with the best possible strategy, will take years to combat. But the real problem is that in the wake of so many attacks over the last 18 months, the West has lost its focus, concerned about stopping individual terrorists instead of debating long-term strategy.
If we are serious about eliminating this threat, the West has to make some major changes. First, and most obviously, we have to recognize that the Islamic State’s occupation of large sections of Iraq and Syria is not a distant tragedy, but the driving force behind these attacks, operationally and inspirationally.
Theoretically, the United States leads a coalition of 65 nations against the Islamic State. In reality, most of these countries do little besides talk tough. Even those that do contribute in a meaningful way — and that includes France — rarely go beyond airstrikes and the occasional special forces raid. Not only has this lackadaisical approach failed to defeat the Islamic State; its failure plays into the group’s claim to be invulnerable and chosen by God. The same goes for other extremist organizations that hold territory, like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the various groups vying with one another for control of coastal Libya.
Moreover, too many countries in the region see the Islamic State as a secondary threat, subordinate to sectarian rivalries. Such sectarianism can only perpetuate conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen; this, in turn, draws valuable oxygen away from the struggle against the Islamic State and the Qaeda franchises.
The West may be tired of war, but to borrow a phrase, war is not tired of us. We must refocus and redouble our efforts against the Islamic State and its ilk, even at the risk of getting embroiled in another expansive military campaign — though we should also rely on local Arab and Muslim allies to provide the ground forces. Only by destroying the Islamic State as an organization can we delegitimize it as a source for global terror.
At the same time, we must be careful not to fall into the common trap of believing that military force is sufficient. As President Obama memorably told cadets at West Point, having the world’s best hammer is no excuse for seeing every problem as a nail. As well as denying the Islamic State and others physical territory, we must also deny them the ability to reach the minds of potential recruits.
Life for millions of young men in the Islamic world — and in Muslim enclaves in the West — is characterized by chronic unemployment, abysmal educational opportunities, social dislocation and widespread governmental corruption or indifference. In its well-produced propaganda, the Islamic State promises the opposite: a life of camaraderie, consequence, adventure, spiritual fulfillment and a chance to create an Islamic utopia. Further marginalizing vulnerable communities — say, by subjecting them to loyalty tests, as some politicians have suggested — would only exacerbate the problem.
Instead, we must work with countries in the Middle East and beyond to end the societal conditions that foster extremism. Again, we’ve long talked a good game under the banner of “democracy promotion” and other buzzwords, but we haven’t really committed ourselves. We must press hard for an end to repression and corruption, and thus make clear that jihadis do not enjoy a monopoly on rejecting failed policies. We must provide political and economic support to fill the power vacuums terrorists often exploit. We must work to improve education to give young people a better future, as well as the critical thinking skills they will need to reject the false promises of extremism.
None of this will prevent the next attack, and more innocents are likely to lose their lives before the Islamic State and Al Qaeda are finally defeated. But that day will never come unless we refocus our efforts on doing what really matters.
Ali H. Soufan is a former F.B.I. special agent and the author of The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda.