Why The Paris Attacks May Signal A Shift In Extremist Violence

FILE – In this Thursday, Jan. 8, 2015, file photo, French police conduct house to house searches in Longpont, north of Pari
FILE – In this Thursday, Jan. 8, 2015, file photo, French police conduct house to house searches in Longpont, north of Paris, during the second day of a manhunt for the suspects in the newsroom massacre at the satirical French magazine, Charlie Hebdo. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus, File)

Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. Today, we speak with professor Saskia Sassen about the attacks in Paris and new forms of violent extremism.

Cities are increasingly part of the front line when it comes to challenges faced by governments worldwide, such as forced migration, environmental issues and extremist attacks.

As more and more people move to urban centers, theorists contend that cities have become instrumental parts of a globalized world -- and sites of new types of conflict and violence. Terrorist attacks such as the 2005 al Qaeda bombings in the London subway, the 2008 terror operation in Mumbai and last week's deadly assaults on the offices of Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris highlight that cities have become a site for asymmetric war in which insurgents or extremists target powerful states and armed forces.

Columbia University Professor Saskia Sassen is one of the most prominent figures addressing the role of cities in relation to globalization, conflict and migration. She has done seminal work conceptualizing the world and the place of cities within it, coining the term ‘global city.’ Her most recent book is Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy. The WorldPost spoke with Sassen about how the attacks in Paris fit into ideas of extremism and the city.

What does it mean for a city to be a front-line space for extremist attacks?

A city can be situated either inside or outside the theater of war. On the one hand you have cities that are inside the theater of war, such as Baghdad. On the other hand you have a broader space where asymmetric war plays out even though it doesn’t involve the actual combatants who are in the theater of war. The bombings in London, the attacks in Mumbai and the bombings in Madrid took place outside the theater of war. That’s what makes these attacks disturbing, that they can be locally produced and that they don't need to be in connection with the guys who are in the theater of war.

In the case of Paris, we now believe that there was communication between the attackers and the theater of war. [Al Qaeda in Yemen has claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack and Amedy Coulibaly, the suspect in the kosher supermarket killings, said he was a supporter of the Islamic State group.] In the cases of the attacks in London and in Madrid, they were not connected.

Does Paris mark a new shift in the way these attacks occur?

We don't know all of the facts yet, but I think Paris may represent the third generation of asymmetric war. We had the first stage in Iraq and Afghanistan itself, the second stage are the bombings in London and other cities, and the attacks in Paris reflect the third stage.

Do you feel that the recent siege in Sydney, in which an Iranian-born man took several people hostage in a coffee shop last December, fits into the concept of a third stage?

I think it fits into the second generation. It's the kind of situation that takes a localized condition and doesn't take any live connection with al Qaeda or the Islamic State group.

What is it specifically that makes an attack fit into the third category?

That the attack is not isolated, that people are moving back and forth. We've seen that a bit in the past, but in the case of Paris it is more visible. The bombings in Bali and in Casablanca were locally produced and endogenously generated. There may have been some inspiration from extremist groups but they were mostly endogenous productions.

I think we need to understand that in the case of the Paris attacks, we're dealing with a different type of logistics than London and Madrid. We can attribute part of that to the Islamic State, but it also stems from the mobility between Europe and theaters of war in the Middle East.

Is there a balance that can be struck between the need for security and the negative effects?

Well, I agree with several experts that the way in which we have proceeded to secure our countries in recent years is extreme. In order to prevent another attack, every citizen has become a suspect. If I were black or I were Muslim today I would be subject to harassment. The way the state of emergency is addressed right now has an inefficient feel to it and comes at an enormous price and will generate more anger in the long run. I think a lot of innocent Muslims are going to pay a very high price for this approach to preventing another attack. I think we've got to find a better way.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.