Islamic State and the Paris Attacks: Terror, Culture and Urban Infrastructure

Alex Tickell


The co-ordinated acts of terrorist violence that shook Paris on 13th November have generated considerable media comment and analysis as a corollary to the horror and fear that was their more generalised effect. The attacks for which Islamic State (ISIS) declared responsibility, and which claimed 130 lives, have been seen as indicative of a step-change in IS strategy: an expansion of its operations in Europe and, potentially, a new cultural emphasis in its terror–strategy in which leisure and entertainment venues are targeted.[i]

As we mourn the loss of life, and abhor the beliefs and actions of Islamic State, the response of many working in the critical traditions of postcolonial studies will be to think about the representational technologies mediating such attacks  – and to consider the particular consequences and implications of such violence in its new European metropolitan location. Such targeting by IS adherents (who were mostly French or Belgian nationals) of sites in a city that is synonymous with the secular culture of the Enlightenment is certainly a new departure for a group that only 18 months ago was relatively unknown outside Iraq. However, urban terror attacks are a well-established component of IS operations nearer its heartland, and its suicide bombers killed 43 people in Beirut on 12th November,[ii] and claimed at least 17 lives in Baghdad on the same day as the Paris attacks.[iii] Considering the terrible milestones of its recent history, Islamic State’s most significant urban attack to date was probably the invasion and capture of the Iraqi city of Mosul on 10th June last year, precipitating an ongoing regime of executions and civil terror amongst the population of that city. This event was followed, barely two weeks later, by a statement from the leader of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, proclaiming territorial authority through a new Islamic Caliphate. (The city of Raqqa in IS-controlled Syria is now of comparable strategic if not symbolic importance.)

Islamic State has well-documented religious-political reasons for supporting and endorsing the Paris attacks, and we should avoid the category mistake of thinking of it as ‘simply’ a terror group, rather than ‘a hybrid of insurgency, terrorism, and criminality with deep roots in its immediate local environment, in broader regional conflicts and in [wider] geopolitical battles’ (Burke 2015:9). IS’s reasons for targeting the French capital included retribution for French air strikes in Syria, the further polarisation of radical Islam and its ‘Others’, the psychological assaulting of its enemies, and the recruitment of more operatives globally. (Compared with earlier groups like Al–Qaeda, IS also pursues a general policy of war against what it calls ‘crusader’ states, and its politics is imbued with an apocalyptic rhetoric – its adherents speak of the End of Days and the chief IS spokesman, Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, has enjoined the crucifixion and enslavement of IS enemies.)[iv] The journalist Patrick Cockburn finds significant local indications, too, that recent changes in IS battlefronts in Iraq and Syria, and the closing of the main crossing point for volunteer fighters between Syria and Turkey, may also have played some part in the tactical shift towards this kind of operation against a ‘distant enemy’.[v] The attacks in Paris must be seen, then, as an extension of regional conflicts in Iraq and now Syria, just as the humanitarian crisis caused by these conflicts has also exceeded any easy regional containment.

None of this, of course, alleviates the suffering of the individuals and families caught up in the Paris attacks; nor does it lessen the possibility of further attacks, such as those allegedly pre-empted by French police in St Denis. And if the attacks were indicative of a new pan-European strategy on the part of IS, they were also familiar, in as much as the attackers managed to kill numerous civilians but only inflicted minimal damage to the French state. Instead, for a few hours, they transformed the streets and public spaces of the European city into a stage for extreme, randomised violence in which French sovereignty was excepted, normal expectations and social activities were suddenly suspended and made nightmarish, and French citizens were subjected to a terrifying abandonment (see Agamben 1995: 29). In response, the French Premier declared a state of emergency, which has now been extended for a period of three months and is ratified by a new law increasing the government’s police powers.[vi] In these conditions of suspended legal regulation, pervasive fear invariably coalesces into cultural forms: analyses of terrorism after 9/11 and 7/7 shows that the trace-effects of terrorism in the cities of the Global north play uniquely on pre-existing cultural tropes, such as the gothic, apocalyptic science fiction and the disaster movie. For Islamic State, spectacular violence of this kind is, in turn, part of its own culture of terror and serves various functions, not least as a quasi-governmental force in the territories it holds, and as an international sign of its implacable conviction.

The Planned Violence research network has so far avoided analysing forms of planned urban terror, preferring to examine the structural and latent violence inherent in the design, organisation and policing of urban space. This has been deliberate: two of us in the network had already researched conjunctions of colonialism and terror extensively (see Boehmer and Morton 2010, and Tickell 2012), and the network’s founding rationale was to understand the underlying, infrastructural modes of violence implicit in urban environments.

Yet the attacks in Paris deserve some comment. Like the inter-urban logic of the network, which looked for continuities and overlaps between cities like London and New Delhi, the Paris attacks – if they have any precursor – recall the differently motivated assault by Lakshar-e-Taiba militants in Mumbai in November 2008. In each case, squads of armed and seemingly trained individuals attacked civilians in multiple sites in a large city, most of them in leisure spaces (cafes, restaurants, hotels), although in Mumbai some key symbolic spaces (notably a Jewish community centre) were also targeted. In each case as well, the attack was facilitated by the space of the city: its innate complexity, its difficulty of access and policing, its predictable human densities and flows. Something of the strategic value of Paris’s city space as a facilitating factor was certainly apparent in the statement released by IS soon after the attacks. Here they claimed, in language that rehearses a Quranic idiom, that ‘Paris was thereby shaken beneath the crusaders’ feet’,[vii] who were ‘constricted by its streets’. In fact, one effect of the attack was also an ironic, inadvertent inversion of the pedestrian culture of the Parisian streets– the well-known modern figure of the flâneur, or the meandering of the Situationist dérive, being replaced by heavily-armed assailants whose path through the city was marked by a wandering haphazard targeting of other citizens.

Karte der Terroranschläge vom 13. November 2015 in Paris
Compared with car bombs or lone suicide bombers, the infiltration of a city by groups of co-ordinated, militarised operatives certainly starts to redefine what urban terror involves. We might think of these attacks in modes that are familiar from urbanist studies of the cities of the global south, where the state has retreated or become so dysfunctional that citizens are compelled, for their survival, to become what AbdouMalik Simone terms human ‘infrastructure’ (Simone 2010: 126). Members of the Planned Violence research group have been sceptical of such an expansion of the term beyond material networks, but if we recall the military infrastructures currently operating against IS in Iraq and Syria, especially drone technologies and air strikes, then the semi-independent deployment of ‘returned’ veterans of that conflict on the streets of European cities has a reciprocal technological logic: without the costly war-machinery of the global north, but with access to small arms, explosives and a sacrificial level of commitment, IS adherents and operatives can transform themselves into a form of invasive quasi-military infrastructure.

The new wandering terror-threat in the European metropolis will no doubt force security services in IS-targeted countries to pay fresh attention to urban terrain. This, in turn, is likely to cause further changes in the ways European cities are used and policed, encouraging a greater civil infiltration of security and surveillance technologies, including forms of identification, separation and defensive architecture. One of the important insights of the Planned Violence network, which is indebted to the work of geographers like Stephen Graham, has been that the planning, management and construction of city-space since 2001 has already incorporated manifold forms of ‘urban militarism’ (see Graham 2010). Since 9/11 older certainties about domestic and international threat, ally and enemy have broken down, leading to a blurring of the ‘military and civil spheres, local and global scales and inside and outside of nations’ (see Graham 2010: 21). The continuation of this urban logic, after Paris, will have effects that are not immediately apparent, but will certainly be far-reaching: creating further pressures on common spaces of the city, criminalising forms of unsanctioned gathering, and reshaping civic life.

The Paris attacks inevitably force us to think as well about the city as a space of multiple ethnicities, and the stage for a continually enacted, densely networked relationship between metropolitan centre and its local/global peripheral zones. (A further collateral effect of the attacks will almost certainly be an increase in violent racism against immigrant communities, and especially Muslims, in European cities.). In centres like Paris, the city’s urban geography, and the separation of upscale inner-city arrondissements municipaux and peripheral banlieues (such as the notorious Clichy-sous-Bois suburb) maps onto the complex postcolonial history of France, and its neo-colonial relationship with North Africa. Similarly, the suburb of Molenbeek-Saint-Jean in the Belgian capital, which was home to some of the Paris attackers, has a very specific postcolonial economic and cultural genealogy. The simplistic multiculturalist understanding of these spaces as zones of immigrant community and acculturation has been in abeyance for some time, and it is clear that the mobility and postmodern ‘glocal’ connectedness of the world now produces highly complex composite civic identities and ethnoscapes rooted, simultaneously, in different local, virtual (internet-based) and international contexts (see Appadurai 1996).

Perhaps a related detail that should also be noted is the comparable personal stories of the attackers: young men who had grown up in just such urban peripheries, and tended to share a history of petty criminality. As Jason Burke suggests, a lack of opportunity was something they shared with many young people in similar urban locations in countries like Tunisia and Morocco. ‘There may be no direct link between poverty and extremism’, argues Burke, ‘but such circumstances [high unemployment levels, crumbling educational facilities and limited opportunities for personal fulfilment] must surely have contributed to the appeal of the brutal solutions proposed by Islamic State’ (see Burke 2015: 46). Continuing this line of thought, the UK government might be encouraged, as part of an intelligent domestic counter-terrorism strategy against the threat posed by IS, to reflect on the comparative educational indebtedness, lack of opportunity, and political disenfranchisement currently faced by the key IS recruitment cohort in this country: young people aged 20-30.

These rudimentary notes started with an assumption of how a ‘postcolonial’ response to the Paris attacks might be framed, and given its contexts it is perhaps pertinent, in conclusion, to evoke the founding critical spirit of the postcolonial, Edward Said. One cannot think of a starker contrast than that between Said’s highly learned, urbane, cosmopolitan, questioning critical intelligence, and the highly literalist, Salafist, millenarian political thought of Islamic State. However, the problem that now faces postcolonial commentators is that the reductive binary positioning of West and East, which Said spent much of his career meticulously dismantling in his readings of European literary and cultural traditions, is exactly the binary opposition that Islamic State promotes – to the point of reinforcing the medievalism of its literal adherence to the Quran and rejecting ‘the modern’ (even as it disseminated this message across the latest digital media). Colonial history offers us numerous examples of the tactical transposition of colonial binaries by the colonised, but in this case the relative valuation of such a move is useless, as is any extensive investigation into the representational errors of the Western media. (The latter’s worst fault seems to be to perpetuate a sanctioned ignorance about the real politics and priorities of IS.) Instead, non-military opposition to IS must be framed in the way Said might have theorised it, and in a manner that avoids a polarising form: as a renewed diplomatic commitment to the Arab world, as an urgent celebration of the great hybrid civilizational legacies of Islam, and as a refusal to see inclusive humanity and Islamic faith as divisible identities.

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Works cited

Agamben, Giorgio Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life trans, Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995)

Appadurai, Arjun Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalisation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1996)

Atwan, Abdel Bari Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate (London: Saqi Books 2015)

Boehmer, Elleke and Stephen Morton (eds.) Terror and the Postcolonial: A Concise Companion (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2010)

Burke, Jason The New Threat from Islamic Militancy (London: The Bodley Head, 2015)

Coaffee, Jon Terrorism, Risk and the Global City: Towards Urban Resilience (Farnham: Ashgate 2009)

Cockburn, Patrick The Rise of Islamic State: Isis and the New Sunni Revolution (London: Verso, 2015)

Graham, Stephen Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism (London: Verso, 2010)

Lacey, Jim (ed.) The Canons of Jihad: Terrorists’ Strategy for Defeating America (Annapolis, MA: Naval Institute Press 2008)

Simone, AbdouMalik Terrorism, Insurgency and Indian-English Literature, 1830-1947 (London: Routledge, 2013)

Tickell, Alex Terrorism, Insurgency and Indian-English Literature, 1830-1947 (London: Routledge, 2013)





[v] Cockburn, Patrick The Rise of Islamic State: Isis and the New Sunni Revolution (London: Verso, 2015)



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