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The forever war

A man kneels and makes the sign of the cross during a minute of silence held at a makeshift memorial in front of Brussel’s Stock Exchange in March, 2016. It was two days after a triple bomb attack, claimed by the Islamic State group, which hit Brussels’ airport and the central metro station, killing 31 people and wounding 300 others.

As the Globe and Mail's senior international correspondent, Mark MacKinnon has been witness to the tears and panic of terrorist attacks in Paris, Nice, Brussels and now Manchester. The sad truth, he writes, is that we have gotten used to such attacks — we pause, we mourn, we carry on. Each new onslaught, however, carries a message. You just need to know where to look

The scenes, by now, are all too familiar. The lines of police tape strung around the centre of a Western city. The soldiers walking the streets in the wake of a gruesome attack on the West, on us.

The Twitter hashtags come fast and memorable: #ManchesterUnite, #JeSuisCharlie, #BostonStrong, #OttawaStrong.

The train station I pulled into on Tuesday morning – hours after a "soldier" of the Islamic State group blew himself up among a crowd of teenagers, moms and little girls exiting an Ariana Grande concert – happened to be in Manchester, the second city of England. But the sight of police with assault rifles walking through the station, looking searchingly into travellers' eyes, transported me instantly to Gare du Nord in Paris, and the anxious state of emergency declared following the 2015 attacks on the French capital's nightlife.

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Just as recognizable are the candlelit vigils, with the flowers, flags, and handmade signs about love conquering hate. But for the darker architecture and chillier weather, the scene on Albert Square – a graceful plaza beneath Manchester's neo-gothic city hall – was a replica of the makeshift memorial I attended on the Mediterranean seafront in the French city of Nice last summer, where survivors gathered after another Islamic State follower drove his truck into a crowd celebrating France's Bastille Day holiday.

The memorials are always sad and beautiful, but the fact they've become common scenes tells us love isn't winning its contest with hate.

Also familiar was the silence that hung over the normally raucous centre of Manchester all week. Politicians, priests and imams seemed to be the only ones talking, taking turns addressing the phalanx of television cameras that set up camp next to the police line. Each community leader preached of the need for calm to overwhelm panic, for tolerance and "our way of life" to prevail.

It's a shock when it happens to your city, but the reality is that, other than suicide bomber Salman Abedi's choice of such a horrifying target, little is startling about what happened outside Ms. Grande's concert on Monday. What is appalling is how routine it has all become.

It was Manchester's turn on Monday, but Paris, Nice, Brussels, Istanbul, Berlin, St. Petersburg, London and Stockholm have all bled in the past 18 months. And that's just in Europe.

In Saint Petersburg, Russia, on April 3, 2017, a bomb blast tore through a subway train in Russia’s second largest city, St. Petersburg, killing 14 people and wounding more than 40.

After each attack, we pause, we mourn, and then we carry on. We don't connect the attacks on our cities to anything that's happening in other parts of the globe. And we hardly even notice any more how much this endless war on terror is changing us and how we live our lives.

Over the past few years, I've been witness not just to the tears and panic in Paris, Nice, Brussels and Manchester, but also the hopelessness in northern Iraq and the grim plight of Syrian refugees living in the camps of Jordan and Lebanon. The lack of a serious international effort to resolve the conflicts that drove them and their families from their homes gives little hope that the anger that motivates people such as Mr. Abedi will subside any time soon.

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And yes, there is a connection between the tumult in the Middle East and on the attacks on our cities. For too long, we've accepted our politicians' explanations that the perpetrators of atrocities such as the Manchester bombing are simply "losers" – as U.S. President Donald Trump memorably put it this week – with no aim other than murder, no cause other than evil. Doing so leaves us no closer to understanding this ever-repeating phenomenon. If anything, the dehumanizing rhetoric makes it that much more unlikely that we'll stop the next Salman Abedi from hating us and seeking to do us harm.

We don't often think of ourselves as being at war, which makes it harder to process the fact that the enemy is constantly seeking to attack us, and will occasionally succeed.

When I met Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Brussels last year, he twisted himself in a conceptual knot to avoid saying that Canada was at war with IS or anyone else. We're in a "conflict with high risk," he insisted. Not a war.

And this isn't the kind of conflict that will be lionized in movies or remembered in museums. Western warplanes fly missions against Islamic State targets, but the enemy has no air force and few anti-aircraft weapons with which to offer resistance. There are coalition soldiers, including Canadians, on the ground in northern Iraq and Syria, but they are few in number and our soldiers' primary role is to advise local anti-IS forces. They rarely join the fight directly.

The half-in, half-out status doesn't matter to the Islamic State. They believe that they are at war with all of the West, and the West – which bombs IS positions every day – is at war with them.

IS, of course, brought this fight on itself. Three years ago, it appeared unstoppable. With Syria mired in a civil war and on the verge of breaking apart, and the Iraqi government loathed by its Sunni Muslim minority, the group then known as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL (sometimes ISIS), was a juggernaut. It rapidly seized a chunk of territory stretching from the outskirts of Aleppo in northern Syria to the western edge of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.

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In June, 2014, the group's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the existence of a caliphate in those lands, a successor state to the 7th century theocracy founded by the Prophet Mohammed himself. Speaking from a mosque in the recently captured Iraqi city of Mosul, Mr. al-Baghdadi, a lay cleric under Saddam Hussein's rule who later spent 10 months in an American prison camp, declared himself to be a modern caliph and the "commander of the faithful." Islamic State "provinces" emerged in Libya, Afghanistan and Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.

The West was appalled by the appearance of a Taliban-esque entity that kidnapped and brutally murdered Westerners, massacred Iraq's Yazidi minority, and threatened Western interests by advancing toward the Iraqi Kurd capital of Erbil. But the region's Sunni Arabs saw IS as offering them at least some protection from the Shia-dominated Iraqi army and Syria's ruthless Assad regime, also dominated by a Shia sect. When I travelled to northern Iraq in the summer of 2014, Sunni refugees told me how they initially welcomed IS because they no longer wanted to live under the increasingly sectarian government in Baghdad.

Only later did they realize that life under Islamic State would bring even greater misery, that the extremists not only would lead war to their cities, but that they would now have to live under IS's harsh interpretation of Koranic law.

The summer of 2014 would prove to be the apex for the extremist group's influence and battlefield success. Today, surrounded by enemies – the Iraqi army and Shia militias to the east, Kurdish fighters and Western military trainers to the north, the regime of Bashar al-Assad and its allies to the south and west, and U.S.-led coalition planes and the Russian air force pummelling it from the sky – IS rules over only a fraction of the territory that it once held in Iraq and Syria.

In Mosul, it controls only a fraction of the city it once dominated. It's on the retreat in Syria, too, as U.S. and coalition warplanes aid the advance of Kurdish militias toward the main IS stronghold of Raqqa.

But crushing the caliphate in Syria and Iraq won't end the civil wars raging in both countries. It won't make Sunni Muslims feel any safer living under the rule of the current Iraqi or Syrian regimes.

Nor will it extinguish the fury that fuels people such as Mr. Abedi. Some terrorism experts have suggested that such attacks may become even more common as the war shifts away from a defined battlefield. Freed from the burdens of governance, IS can focus on one thing alone: spreading mayhem.

Young men such as Mr. Abedi – who are raised in the West, but learn to hate the society around them – draw their anger from watching the news that doesn't often make it into the media we read and see in Europe and North America.

As Manchester grieved this week over the 22 innocents killed on their way home from the concert, the lands still held by Islamic State were also awash in blood.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based group dedicated to tallying the human costs of the country's six-year-old civil war, says 16 civilians – including five children from the same family – were killed in a rural area near Raqqa on Tuesday, apparently by a bomb dropped by the U.S.-led coalition.

On Thursday, SOHR reported that another coalition air raid had killed 35 more civilians in eastern Syria. Most of the dead in Thursday's strike were relatives of IS fighters, SOHR said, "many of them women and children."

In other words, we fight dirty too.

In November, 2015, gunmen and suicide bombers went on a killing spree in Paris, attacking the Bataclan nightclub, bars, restaurants and the Stade de France. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the coordinated attacks that killed 130 and injured over 350.

The coalition, of which Britain is a key member, hasn't commented on the deaths, but it has acknowledged launching 73 strikes against IS positions on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday alone. One bomb per hour is a relatively standard pace. By the coalition's count, it has carried out about 21,700 air strikes in Iraq and Syria during its three-year-old air war against IS.

There are indications that the coalition has been operating under new and looser rules since Mr. Trump moved into the White House in January. The website airwars.org, which tracks the number of civilians allegedly killed by coalition air strikes recently reported a startling increase in the number of fatalities. According to the website, there is at least a "fair" amount of evidence that coalition bombs have killed 1,455 civilians in the first five months this year, a number that already eclipses the 1,383 deaths that met the same evidentiary threshold in all of 2016. (The total number of alleged deaths from coalition bombs that airwars.org can't find sufficient corroboration for is roughly three times higher in both years.)

Meanwhile, about 200,000 civilians remain trapped in the remaining two areas of Mosul still held by IS. In the neighbourhoods recaptured from IS, reports have surfaced of human rights abuses – including widespread torture and rape – carried out by the Iraqi army. On Thursday, the U.S. military confirmed that it had killed 105 Iraqi civilians during a single air strike on Mosul in March.

There are no Twitter hashtags for Raqqa or Mosul. But IS propagandists have plenty of material for their recruitment videos.

Mr. Abedi's sister Jomana says she believes there was a direct link between the bloodshed in the Middle East and her brother's decision to kill concert-goers in Manchester. "I think he saw children – Muslim children – dying everywhere, and wanted revenge," she told the Wall Street Journal. "He saw the explosives America drops on children in Syria, and he wanted revenge. Whether he got that is between him and God."

Wandering this week through the south Manchester neighbourhood of Fallowfield where Salman Abedi grew up was yet another trip back in time.

In January, 2015, I was in Paris, after brothers Said and Chérif Kouachi were named as the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, walking around the banlieue of Gennevilliers looking for clues to understand what could have turned young men into murderers.

Ten months after that, the scene repeated itself as I travelled to Molenbeek, a hardscrabble district on the edge of central Brussels that was home to three key figures in the November, 2015, attacks on diners, soccer fans and concert-goers in Paris.

Six young men growing up in three different countries. But their stories almost blend together.

All of them were second-generation citizens, all in their 20s or early 30s, all the sons of immigrants or refugees from North Africa. The 22-year-old Mr. Abedi was born to parents who had fled to England to escape the vicious regime of ex-Libyan ruler Moammar Gaddafi. The Kouachi brothers' parents were Algerians who moved away from the military government there. Paris attackers Brahim and Salah Abdesalam were born in Belgium to parents who had immigrated from Morocco, a background they shared with attack mastermind Abdelhamid Abaaoud.

Each of the young men failed to integrate into the societies their parents had worked so hard to join. Mr. Abedi was a business school dropout. The Kouachi brothers were petty criminals. Molenbeek is a land apart in Belgium, a suburb with high youth unemployment that even its mayor called "a breeding ground for violence."

How and when any of the young men became radicalized is a secret each took with them to their grave. Only Salah Abdesalam is still alive, and he has refused to speak even to his lawyers since he was arrested in Molenbeek last year and deported to face justice in France.

But there are other repeating lines in this pattern.

When I arrived in Gennevilliers two years ago following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the manager of the banlieue's Grand Mosque told me how Said Kouachi had once stormed out of a sermon when the imam called on Muslims to vote in France's coming election. The Kouachis' next door neighbour became so concerned about what they were up to that he broke in to their apartment while the brothers were away and discovered a cache of weapons.

Mohammed Saeed, an official at the Didsbury Mosque that Mr. Abedi and his family attended, told British media this week that Mr. Abedi had looked at him "with hate" when Mr. Saeed gave a sermon in 2015 that criticized Islamic State. Mr. Saeed said a friend became so worried that he got his adult children to sit beside Mr. Abedi in the mosque, in case he tried to attack Mr. Saeed.

The BBC reported that two of Mr. Abedi's friends, alarmed by his support for Islamic State – he had made supportive statements about suicide bombers – had passed their concerns on to Manchester police. But, as in France, where the Kouachi brothers were on the police radar after Chérif Kouachi was arrested on his way to Iraq where he hoped to fight against the U.S. military, British police lacked the resources to monitor every suspect.

A memorial was built up outside the Houses of Parliament in memory of those who died in the Westminster terror attack in March, 2017. Five people, including the assailant, were killed and around 40 people were injured.

And so Mr. Abedi was allowed to travel to Libya earlier this year, where authorities now believe he met with local members of Islamic State. France's interior minister said he had been told by British authorities that Mr. Abedi had "likely" travelled to Syria as well. He also travelled to Istanbul, and visited the city of Dusseldorf in Germany just days before the concert attack.

He returned from his travels with a plan to kill as many innocent people as possible.

The explosion outside Manchester Arena came as Mr. Trump was wrapping up a visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel. It was his first overseas trip since winning the White House, but the third major shift in U.S. policy toward the Middle East in as many presidents.

Mr. Trump flew to Riyadh first, where he oversaw the opening of the "Global Centre for Combating Extremist Ideology," a flashy new entity with a purpose that seems at odds with the Saudi kingdom's long-held policy of exporting its severe form of Sunni Islam – known as Wahhabism – abroad. (Islamic State's own ideology is rooted in a Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. Until IS developed its own school textbooks, it used the Saudi curriculum.)

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Saudi Arabia's King Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Mr. Trump signalled a return to an older U.S. policy of supporting Middle Eastern autocrats, a practice Mr. Obama abandoned, at least rhetorically, on his own first trip to the Middle East in 2009, when he gave a landmark speech about democracy in the Arab world to an enthusiastic audience in Cairo.

Mr. Trump made it clear that his administration would not be hectoring Saudi Arabia or Egypt about their human-rights records. How those regimes treated their people was their own business, not Washington's – a message Mr. Trump underlined by signing a $110-billion (U.S.) deal to provide American weapons to the Saudi military. The deal was signed even as Saudi Arabia is engaged in a ruthless sectarian war in neighbouring Yemen – one more fight pitting Sunnis against Shias – helping create yet another refugee crisis in the region.

It was in many ways a return to the U.S. policies of decades past, ones that helped bring us to this violent moment in history. Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, a Saudi citizen, frequently cited American support for repressive Arab dictatorships, as well as Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands, as his casus belli for jihad against the United States. His deputy and successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was radicalized as a teenager by the U.S.-backed Egyptian government's harsh repression of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In the wake of the Manchester bombing, Mr. Trump appeared alongside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Mr. Trump called the perpetrators of the concert attack "evil losers" and vowed to crush those responsible.

"The terrorists and the extremists and those who give them aid and comfort must be driven out of our society forever. This wicked ideology must be obliterated, and I mean completely obliterated."

What Mr. Trump didn't say was nearly as important. While he has repeatedly vowed to bring about the "ultimate deal" between Israel and the Palestinians whose land they occupy, Mr. Trump left his meeting with Mr. Abbas as the first American president in decades not to make clear his support for the idea of an independent Palestinian state.

Mr. Trump's America no longer cares about George W. Bush's ideal of spreading democracy – at gunpoint if necessary – or Mr. Obama's desire to reach past the Arab regimes to support their citizens. Mr. Trump has signalled that nasty regimes can be tolerated if they keep their bad guys under control. Mr. Trump has said in the past that he would even make a deal with Mr. al-Assad, if it meant a quicker end for IS.

Mr. Trump's America wants stability in the Middle East, and business deals.

There's nothing in that bargain for the "losers."

While ousting the Taliban from Kabul after the Sept. 11 attacks deprived al-Qaeda of an operational base, it didn't end the "war on terror." The main battlefield shifted to Iraq, following Mr. Bush's ill-conceived invasion in 2003. And defeating the local al-Qaeda franchise in Iraq brought about the rise of Islamic State.

Terror groups, militants – whatever you want to call them – can't be defeated by military force alone. (The only policy change to come out of this week's tense NATO summit in Brussels was an agreement that all the countries in the alliance would formally join the anti-IS coalition, a development that will change absolutely nothing.)

Another repetitive feature of terror attacks is how, in their aftermath, Western politicians try to portray the perpetrators as zealots who represent no cause other than hatred. That's an easy, comforting thought. But it's not helping end this war.

After the Manchester bombing, British Prime Minister Theresa May gave a speech little different from the ones ex-French president François Hollande gave after each of the Paris and Nice attacks, or from the one that Mr. Bush delivered after the World Trade Center was felled in 2001. Salman Abedi, Ms. May declared, was "evil," "hateful" and "depraved."

"The spirit of Manchester – and the spirit of Britain – is far mightier than the sick plots of depraved terrorists," she declared after a meeting of her security cabinet. "That is why the terrorists will never win, and we will prevail."

People paid tribute to those killed in Nice, France on the Promenade des Anglais in July, 2016. A French-Tunisian attacker killed 84 people as he drove a lorry through crowds who had gathered to watch a firework display during Bastille Day Celebrations. The attacker then opened fire on people in the crowd before being shot dead by police.

Denying the terrorists any ideology or motivation has the advantage of reducing them to monsters in the eyes of the public. Monsters, understandably, must be killed, not negotiated with.

Israel has repeatedly bested Palestinian militants on the battlefield. But Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as well as groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State that piggyback on the Palestinian cause, will never struggle to find recruits so long as the West Bank is under military occupation and millions of Palestinian refugees are scattered around the Middle East.

That catastrophe now risks being repeated in the Syrian refugee settlements that are home to about 4.5 million people in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, not to mention the hundreds of thousands more who have made their way to Europe. Islamic State looks likely to be defeated, but if this generation of Syrians grows up angry and hopeless as with the Palestinians before them, the anger that IS made manifest will not subside, and the West will continue to be a convenient target for the blame.

The options are plain: Move toward a grand settlement that accommodates not just the rulers of the Middle East, but also their seething populations. That likely means facilitating a redrawing of borders in the region, replacing the lines drawn a century ago by British and French colonialists with frontiers that reflect where ethnic and religious groups – Kurds, Sunnis, Shias – really live, and who they want to be ruled by.

Or we can brace for several more decades of the same.

And while Mr. Trump spent much of the week talking about peace with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, his actions – and those of the military he commands – suggest that only more war is ahead.

At the vigils and the concerts that always come after the terror attacks, we declare that we "won't let the terrorists win" by changing the way we live.

And then we change.

In the wake of the Manchester bombing, there were tales of heroism, of ordinary people of all faiths and backgrounds pitching in to help the wounded and the bereaved. But there were also worrying incidents of anti-Muslim rage, including the firebombing of a mosque in Manchester just hours after the concert attack.

Even more unsettling, some once-unacceptable views were nudged – again – closer to the mainstream.

Allison Pearson, a columnist at the right-wing Daily Telegraph, wrote this week that Britain needed the "internment of thousands of terror suspects now to protect our children."

Tabloid provocateur Katie Hopkins went further, posting on her Twitter account the morning after the Manchester bombing that "we need a final solution," an apparent call for some sort of ethnic cleansing of British Muslims.

Ms. Hopkins quickly deleted the tweet – and she was fired on Friday from her post as the host of a talk show on a London radio station – but more than 1,000 people "liked" her remark in the short minutes before it disappeared. She followed it with a tweet calling for Western men to "rise up" and defend their wives and children.

Such language was once considered unthinkably dangerous. But it's not hard to hear the echoes of Mr. Trump's own election-time call for a ban on Muslim immigration to the U.S. "until we can figure out what the hell is going on." French far right leader Marine Le Pen, who came second with 34 per cent of the vote in her country's presidential election last month, has similarly called for the mass expulsion of all foreigners that French police suspect of having links to Islamist groups.

After each atrocity, such sentiments make more sense to more people than they did before. That's another grim part of the routine.

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