The answer is that even though I think an attack of that particular type is unlikely, and even though we are doing everything in our power to prevent it, I am afraid that it would be impossible – and irresponsible – to rule it out completely.
How could we rule it out? Yes, of course the police and the security services are doing an amazing job – with the resources they have – in monitoring the thousands of potential suspects (perhaps 3,000-4,000), some of them clearly more dangerous than others. They foil all sorts of plots, half-baked or otherwise. They make arrests with great frequency. But it is plainly no use hoping that the problem of Daesh-inspired terrorism is going away.
Just in the last few months we have seen appalling loss of British life on the beach in Tunisia; we have seen a Russian passenger jet blown out of the sky; and now 129 people killed in Paris, in the most vicious and shocking fashion, and many others seriously wounded.
Several people over the weekend have echoed the sentiments of the excellent French ambassador to London, Sylvie-Agnes Bermann, who said that this massacre was qualitatively different from the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January. This, she said, was a 9/11 moment. This was an act of war. I agree. And as we deliberate on how to respond, it is essential to be cautious, and to be pragmatic – and yet to use every weapon at our disposal.
First of all we need to catch the bastards before they strike; and I am afraid that I have less and less sympathy with those who oppose the new surveillance powers that the government would like to give the security services. To some people the whistleblower Edward Snowden is a hero; not to me. It is pretty clear that his bean-spilling has taught some of the nastiest people on the planet how to avoid being caught; and when the story of the Paris massacre is explained, I would like a better understanding of how so many operatives were able to conspire, and attack multiple locations, without some of their electronic chatter reaching the ears of the police. I want these people properly spied on, properly watched – and I bet you do, too.
Second, we need to be able to intercept them at frontiers. I know Molenbeek, the melancholy Brussels suburb that is said to have produced some of the Paris killers. I remember happy hours walking its bemerded and frituur-smelling streets, and alas I am not surprised to find – a generation later – that some of those scampering North African children have grown up to become jihadis. What are the implications for the security of Europe, if you can load your car with Kalashnikovs in Molenbeek, and drive unimpeded not just to Paris but to any EU capital you please?
The Paris massacres – as the French have implicitly confirmed, by trying to control their own frontiers – have greatly strengthened the hand of David Cameron as he argues for better control at the borders. And yet it is not enough just to spy on them. It is too late to try to catch them, once they have pupated into proto-terrorists. We must intercept them before the metamorphosis begins. We need to get the antidote down their throats before the poisonous death-cult takes over their minds. That means working ever harder to enlist the vast majority of Muslims who despise Daesh (so I propose to call them, since it is a shame to play their game and use the word Islamic in their title), and who can help most powerfully in differentiating their abominable doctrines from the teachings of the Koran.
"We need to be much faster and much cleverer in beating the absurd propaganda from Raqqa"
It means working with the families, and coming down hard on parents who – all too often, alas – are allowing their kids, of both sexes, to go online and imbibe the jihadi madness: the ranting sermons, the home-made hydrogen peroxide suicide belts, and all the rest of the claptrap.
We need to be much faster and much cleverer in beating the absurd propaganda from Raqqa. How hard can that be? Their “caliphate” is savage, dysfunctional, and so scary that many British would-be jihadis end up pleading to come home. But there it is – a breeding-ground of terror; and it looks very much as if at least one of the Paris killers actually came from Syria, via Leros. And so we come to the last of our possible responses – the military one. All the generals I have talked to are leery. They want to understand the mission, and how we propose to achieve it. Would we go in with Putin? Would we effectively be backing Assad? No choice looks attractive; no plan is perfect. But is doing nothing any better? It is more than two years since the government was defeated in its plan to intervene in Syria, and the rhythm of terror would appear to be increasing. These people avowedly want to destroy us, and in those circumstances no military option can be off the table. This is a fight we will one day inevitably win – because in the end our view of the human spirit is vastly more attractive and realistic than theirs. But we won’t win if we don’t fight back.