The real enemy we are facing

Story highlights

  • At least 128 people are believed to have been killed in attacks in Paris on Friday
  • Frida Ghitis: Anyone who excuses or justifies terrorism is part of the problem

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. Follow her @FridaGhitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)For a short time, it looked as though Friday would end as a day of victories against the forces that radiate suffering and brutality from the throbbing wound of the Middle East.

After all, we had heard the encouraging news that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) may have been pushed out of Sinjar, the Iraqi town where they murdered and enslaved members of the Yazidi sect. And there were claims that a drone strike might have killed the infamous "Jihadi John," the London-raised ISIS member who decapitated hostages on camera with English narration for Western audiences.
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The depths of their depravity justified celebrating their demise. But there was no time to celebrate, because then came the Paris attacks, and the killing of at least 128 people. And we are now left stunned by yet another low for humankind.
    On Friday night local time, armed men attacked half a dozen civilian locations in Paris, taking hostages and massacring people in restaurants, a rock concert venue, and the national soccer stadium. There was no immediate, clear-cut link between these terrorists and a single organization, but that was hardly necessary. We knew who was to blame. And so it was no surprise to read Saturday that ISIS has claimed responsibility, adding that this is the first attack "of the storm."
    There were scattered reports Friday from witnesses who quoted terrorists yelling in perfect French, "It's the fault of your president! He should not have intervened in Syria," amid the familiar chants of "Allahu Akbar!" as they fired into the crowd.
    Like Jihadi John, a British citizen whose real name was Mohammed Emwazi, at least some of the perpetrators of the Paris bloodshed were most likely European Muslims, citizens of a flawed but enlightened and democratic country. They are individuals who have been exposed to an extremist ideology that tells them terrorism is an acceptable, honorable way of addressing their grievances.
    But it is important to remember what the real enemy is here. It is not terrorism, as such -- that is merely a tactic. The enemy is certainly not Muslims or Islam. Instead, the enemies are the proponents of the extremist Jihadi ideology that has taken root within a segment of the Muslim community -- in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere -- which says murdering civilians in pursuit of one's vision of Islam, in revenge for wrongs, real or perceived, is the right, religiously sanctioned way.
    As President Barack Obama said Friday, "This is an attack not just on Paris, not just on the people of France, but an attack on all humanity and the universal values we share."
    He's right, and so those who have been attacked -- and that is humanity -- should respond together. This obviously includes Muslims, many of whom have reiterated the need for Muslim communities to address the toxic ideology that is growing in their midst. Because sadly, the extremists are present not just on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, and in Afghanistan, Libya, Gaza, Egypt, and elsewhere. It has also taken refuge in some mosques in cities including Paris, and London. Muslims therefore have a unique role to play in bringing an end to this wave of inhumanity.
    With that in mind, anyone who excuses or justifies terrorism -- attacks against civilians aimed to create fear and further a political agenda -- is part of the problem and shares in the blame. Undoubtedly, we will be hearing again about the discrimination experienced by Muslims in Europe. And such discrimination is real. But it is absolutely not a reasonable justification or sufficient explanation for what happened. Justifying it only ensures that more attacks will come.
    The truth is that these terrorists have actually made life more uncomfortable for Muslims in Europe. And if they thought killing civilians was a way of demonstrating that France should not fight ISIS in Syria, they have only demonstrated how urgent the need is to defeat terrorist groups. They have proven once again that what happens in Syria does not stay in Syria, just as what happened in Afghanistan did not stay there, either.
    In July, ISIS called on its supporters to attack France, with their French-language magazine praising an attack in the city of Lyon. A video showed a French Jihadi ranting as he shot a Syrian soldier in the head, vowing ISIS would not rest until Paris was filled with corpses. Now there is talk that ISIS is threatening London, Washington and Rome.
    Do we need more proof of how dangerous this ideology is to everyone?
    But while this terror group is the deadliest, most extreme manifestation of Islamist extremism, the problem does not begin or end with ISIS. Back in January, the attacks in Paris at the Charlie Hebdo magazine and in a Jewish grocery store, appeared to be carried out by followers of rival Jihadi groups -- al Qaeda's branch in Yemen claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo operation, while the attacker at a kosher deli claimed allegiance to ISIS.
    So, while ISIS must be defeated in Syria and Iraq, and in the many other countries where it now operates, that is only part of a multi-front battle.
    Of course, Islamist extremists will need to be fought on the battlefield, just as the Kurds and Yazidis did in Sinjar. Propagandists and killers like Jihadi John must be silenced. But Muslim communities must continue to be vocal and active in rejecting extremist ideologies and extremists in their midst, and they must work together with intelligence organizations to root out those plotting attacks.
    The message that must be sent to anyone who doubts it is that killing civilians for political motives is always wrong, whether the victims are Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or anything else. And it is also crucial to remember that to win an ideological battle we must not betray the ideology we support: unwavering respect for human rights and rule of law.
    More than a decade after 9/11, terrorism is still growing -- in recent days we've seen suicide bombings in Beirut and a Russian airliner widely believed to have been downed by a bomb in Egypt. There seems good reason to expect that the trend will continue, because even as we have seen some victories, there have also been bitter defeats.
    And all this points up what may be the most sobering truth of the Paris attacks: This war is nowhere near its end.