Al Qaeda and the Islamic State demonstrate genius in accumulating local grievances to fuel global panic, Wilson School and sociology professor Kim Lane Scheppele, who has written about terrorism in Moscow, told a packed room during a Friday panel.
She said the recent string of bombings in Mali, Paris and Beirut began with the Russian plane crash in Egypt on Oct. 31. All of the events appear concentrated in time and motivation.
"In many ways, a lot of the roads from these terrorist attacks lead back to Syria, lead back to the kind of crisis that ISIS has created by trying to build a state, by trying to recruit people from all over the region," Scheppele explained.
For example, she noted that Russia's specific history has morphed into the Syrian story, thereby uniting with the history of France and other places.
In Russia, Chechen rebels mainly fought against the government using terrorism. The event that most resembled the Bataclan carnage in Paris was a theater siege against the Russian middle class in October 2002, a three-day incident that took 850 hostages, 130 of whom were killed largely by the methods of the Russian security services that stormed the building, according to Scheppele.
"You could see this week that Russians were out in force, mourning the Paris attacks: huge flowers, a huge memorial at the French embassy in Moscow. And I think this is because Russians really understand. They've been there too," Scheppele said.
While Scheppele focused on each nation's past as an explanatory factor for recent terrorism, French professor Andre Benhaim emphasized the details of the killings in France's capital. He described the Paris attacked on Nov. 13 as multifaceted, deep, and full of emotion.
"What the terrorists aimed at that night is Paris at its heart: dynamic, young, complex, both traditionally French and multicultural," Benhaim said, explaining that the victimized neighborhood contains a socioeconomic mixture of people from diverse backgrounds, especially young professionals and educated citizens.
In particular, the attackers focused on Saint-Denis, a largely immigrant area typical of the northern Parisian suburbs. This site poses the most questions because while the attacks began there, they failed for unknown reasons that police are still investigating, he noted.
"What appears obvious is that it was not only the gathering together at the stadium that was targeted, but also the cosmopolitan nature of life in Paris and life in France in general," Benhaim said.
Philippe Lançon, a journalist at the French newspaper Libération, used to work at Charlie Hebdo where terrorists shot him in January, leaving him hospitalized until last month. He said that when he began his career in the 1980s, young reporters like himself would cover crime by going to the suburbs where the first generation of North Africans born in France were growing up. The fathers of today's terrorists proved easy to talk to.
"If you speak with the white guy from Paris who comes as a journalist, that means you think he can understand you, that there is a possible dialogue," he said. However, he noticed that such conversations stopped by the end of the 1990s.
Lançon attributed the shift in part to the narratives told about immigrants from Algeria and other North African countries that cast Muslims as a new enemy in France.
"Because of many problems on the TV and the way that the young Arabic people thought they were in no way part of the social contract, the dialogue was no longer possible, with journalists, with any kind of people from the outside," Lançon explained.
He also blamed the blindness of French citizens in asking the state to do what they could not and the psychopathology of the specific killers.
"When I see the horrible things that happen now, it's not possible not to think that we had failed as French society, because the way we failed created these monsters," Lançon said.
However, Near Eastern Studies professor Bernard Haykel, who studies the rise of the Islamic State, emphasized that the Paris attack represents not a French phenomenon, but rather a global one. He explained that people around the world are suffering at the hands of the Islamic State regardless of how they treat followers of Islam.
"To blame France, either the government or people, for alleged or real racism against Arabs or Muslims, is not an explanation for why this happened," Haykel said.
In the last eight or nine months, he said, the Islamic State has lost a series of significant battles in countries like Iraq and Syria. After an October suicide attack in Turkey, the Turkish government also closed the recruitment pipe from the West. The Russians and the French joined the bombing campaign against the organization that same month. Above all, US air power and special forces' coordination with local fighters, mainly the Kurds and some Christians, has been devastating the Islamic State.
Haykel said that as a result of the mounting military pressure, the Islamic State is engaging in more and more suicide attacks and will continue to do so. The trend continues from when members of the group's precursor, Al Qaeda in Iraq during the early 2000s, resorted to nihilistically killing themselves and nearby enemies to compensate for losses.
"What's interesting about the Paris attack in particular is that ISIS has often criticized Al Qaeda for going after the far enemy or distant targets," he said, adding that the Islamic State's decision to target France indicates a certain degree of desperation.
History professor Gyan Prakash drew on his experience of terrorism in Mumbai to claim that the Paris killings primarily aimed to instill fear.
"The fact that your city is attacked feels like almost a violation of some kind of a virginal space, and when that happens, then of course the immediate reaction and temptation is to shoot from the hip, and think that that's the only way that you can react," he said.
But Scheppele warned that the panic induced by terrorism puts pressure on governments to overreact.
She said French lawmakers are seriously considering amending the constitution. If passed, the proposal would essentially take the executive completely out of legal control to act however and whenever to fight terrorists.
"People aren't thinking far enough ahead about what this is doing for French politics," she noted.
Although the speakers offered various interpretations of the Paris killings, Benhaim pointed out barriers to pinpointing the causes of the terrorism.
"To be sure, we can debate, discuss, extrapolate at length as to why Paris was attacked ... at this point, I would argue that most of what can be done is to wonder and to some extent speculate," he said.
The roundtable, titled "Paris Is Not Alone: Terror Attacks in Comparative Perspective," was filled to capacity, with later attendees instructed to watch the livestream from another room. The conversation took place at noon in 219 Aaron Burr Hall, moderated by Wilson School research scholar and European Union Program co-director Sophie Meunier.
The Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies and European Union Program organized the event. Sponsors included the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies, the Council of the Humanities, the Department of French and Italian, the Program in European Cultural Studies, the Program in Contemporary Politics and Society, the Ferris Seminars in Journalism, the Program in Latin American Studies, the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies, the Institute for Transregional Studies and the Wilson School.