After last year's tragic events in Paris, which killed 17 people in January and 130 more on November 13, and now with the Brussels attacks, there is a strong, even irresistible temptation to assume that we are now dealing with a "shadow army," or worse, a real army.
The multitude of targets, the diversity of execution methods, and the recurrence of attacks imply that there is a developing mob of participants of North African origin. Abdeslam and his consorts move around like fish in water, despite the ubiquitous police presence. And don't the terrorists claim that they belong to a state embodied by ISIS?
Thus, there is a chance that we could be at war, no longer in the metaphorical sense. Remarks by François Hollande, as well as many other leaders, since the night of November 13 seemed to suggest that we could be in the midst of a real war with their army. The most recent massacre in Brussels would confirm this.
Before jumping on the bandwagon of this narrative, we should take a few moments to reflect, both to verify it, and to consider its consequences.
Terror can be spread without an army.
Let's look at the facts first. We know that there were at least 10 players in the Paris attacks at the time, supported by a Franco-Belgian network that couldn't be accurately measured at the time, but which appears to constitute about 20 individuals, including a few relatives of the murderers. That's not surprising -- the weapons can be obtained, the logistics can be organized, the hideouts can be rented, and the explosives can be manufactured.
This isn't an army, but at most, a squad of outlaws. This is a group of criminals mainly fighting against intelligence services, police forces and judicial repression. Let's also add that we know that a very small number of individuals can cause disproportionate damage -- a prime example is the attack by the "lone wolf" from the extreme right, Anders Breivik, which left 77 people dead in 2011. He used a van crammed with explosives and his personal arsenal of firearms.
Terror can be spread without an army. Terrorism can also have different faces: The Oslo massacre was among the most deadly acts of terrorism in Europe, along with the 2004 Madrid train bombings, and the Paris attacks of November 13.
Nothing is more helpful to ISIS than being treated like a state with its own army.
Now, let's consider the consequences. ISIS considers itself to be a fully independent state, and it presents its "martyrs" as militants belonging to an army fighting against non-believers. Nothing contributes to bolstering its self-image more than being treated like a state with its own army and militants. We are giving the terrorists an honor that they certainly don't deserve. Talking about an army and a war strengthens the motivation of the ISIS servants. Talking about a shadow army is even worse: these murderers are certainly not the successors of the heroes of the Resistance.
While it's true that ISIS is representative of a section of the populations in countries at civil war, particularly in Syria and Iraq, in Western Europe, it is no more than a terrorist group that in no way constitutes a mass movement. Tens of thousands of "S" cards in France is way too many, but that's still not representative, in a country of 66 million inhabitants, of which around 5 million are of Muslim faith.
Don't fall into the mindset of civil war.
By creating two categories of French people (ISIS and non-ISIS), by perpetuating a state of emergency with grave effects, and by confronting terrorism as if it were a question of fighting an army, we risk leaping from a scenario of fighting groups and individuals, to a drama involving entire populations.
It's this prospect of a civil war that ISIS is hoping for; and that's what we must avoid. The fear sparked by the bloody Brussels attacks will test our ability to avoid this downward spiral.
This post first appeared on HuffPost France. It has been translated into English and edited for clarity.