It seemed like the world stopped. News outlets devoted nonstop coverage to the November 15, 2015, terrorist attacks in Paris. Many people changed their Facebook or Twitter profile pictures to show solidarity with France.
Why this attack? Why didn’t the suicide bombs the day before in Lebanon, or the slaughter of more than 100 college students in Kenya earlier this year, draw such an outcry?
Some analysts accuse Western media of racism. Lebanese observers suggested that perhaps Arab lives mattered less. There is, indeed, probably bias in the coverage. People are more likely to be concerned about victims they can identify with. Research tells us that U.S. media outlets are more likely to cover terrorist attacks with U.S. victims. The news media are more likely to cover disasters in wealthier countries. And tragedies that are physically closer to the United States are more likely to appear in U.S. news.
But there is more to the story.
It’s important to keep two things in mind about how the news media sets its priorities.
First, “news” is generally considered to be something especially unusual. The journalism truism is that “dog bites man” is not a story, but “man bites dog” is. That’s not a judgment on whether dog bites matter; it’s a judgment about what’s surprising.
Second, news outlets are influenced by their consumers. Human beings are especially interested in events that might affect them personally. If the media outlet’s readers or viewers are likely to feel that an event has implications for them, that will be covered as a more important story than if the events are unlikely to touch the audience’s lives.
Given that, here are some of the reasons the Paris attacks drew such an overwhelming amount of media attention (including this blog post).
France is an unusual target
One reason the attack drew so much international attention was that France doesn’t experience nearly as much terrorism as countries with comparable recent attacks, such as Lebanon or Kenya.
Last year, Lebanon had more than 200 terrorist attacks, killing 114 people, according to the Global Terrorism Database. One such attack was a car bomb that killed four people, including a Hezbollah leader. Kenya was struck by terrorists more than 100 times in 2014, resulting in more than 300 deaths.
In France in 2014, however, only one person died as a result of terrorism.
For France, this year already had been more violent than last, given the attack on the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in January. Nonetheless, France in recent years has experienced much less terrorism than many other countries.
Paris is a top global tourist destination
The attack on Paris also shocked observers around the world because many have been there, or plan to visit. France is the most visited country in the world.
This creates an “it could happen to me” factor, and also suggests that terrorism could affect someone we know.
Terrorists, of course, seek out such targets. Attacking tourism hot spots is excellent for drawing attention to their cause. The economic consequences for the tourism industry, unfortunately, can be substantial.
Because Paris is such a prominent travel destination, people from many countries have an interest in violence there, especially when tourists and other foreigners get killed. At least 25 foreigners died in the Paris attacks.
Random civilians were targeted using shocking tactics
The Paris attack also stands out for the tactics used by the perpetrators. This attack played out over time in multiple public locations. It also seemed to target everyone, instead of a specific group.
Suicide bombers struck a soccer stadium filled with thousands of people, including the president of France, but they only killed one person besides themselves. Other terrorists attacked restaurants, shooting down people drinking or dining.
The concert attack left dozens dead, with hundreds more trapped inside the hall. Observers around the world wondered if and when the Paris police would intervene.
Overall, these attacks were unusually terrifying precisely because they did not target a particular class of people — such as only Christians, university students, or government officials. They targeted anyone and everyone.
A life lost in this manner is not “more tragic” than a life lost in a civil war. However, it might be more newsworthy, because it’s unusual (see above).
Are we seeing a new battleground for the Islamic State?
The Paris massacre also is drawing international attention because it suggests a new outward turn for the Islamic State.
The Islamic State has mostly attacked in Syria and Iraq, with some attacks in neighboring countries, such as Lebanon. As a result, some analysis has suggested that the Islamic State is less of a threat to the rest of the world than al-Qaeda. A terrorism expert noted in April that while the Islamic State inspired lone wolf attacks in the West, it had not focused on organizing attacks in the West.
Islamic State leaders “have not made a priority of organizing strikes on the West,” the New York Times stated just three months ago.
However, with the Paris attack, it appears that the group is branching out into Western countries that rarely experience terrorism.
The Islamic State leadership apparently directed the attack, according to French officials. That would set it apart from attacks that were only inspired by the group, such as the few killings that have occurred in Western countries in the past year.
The explosion of the Russian plane in Sinai, killing 224 people, could also be part of the new outward turn of the group — if the Islamic State bombed the plane, as evidence suggests and as the group has claimed. However, the actual bomb would have been placed on the plane in Egypt, where the Islamic State has already been operating. Also, there is not a consensus, especially among Russian and Egyptian authorities, that the plane’s explosion was indeed a terrorist attack.
In claiming credit for the Paris attack, the Islamic State promised more such attacks. Given that many foreign fighters have already left Syria, and now are throughout Europe, this rightly should put the continent on edge.
This was a complex, coordinated attack. And that’s worrisome.
If we are indeed seeing a change in Islamic State behavior in the West, from only inspiring lone actors to apparently directing more complex attacks, it is a substantial shift.
An undirected lone individual trying to stab some people is one thing. An orchestrated attack on multiple locations by combat veterans strapped with suicide bombs is another.
For such an attack, terrorist organizations have to find capable and committed foot soldiers who can work with others, without the authorities catching on. Planning and communication among perpetrators — without getting caught — is especially challenging in a state with advanced surveillance capabilities. One reason why we often see lone-actor attacks in high-capability states is that organized terror is difficult to accomplish in these countries, as I argued in a recent article.
The realization that the Islamic State is apparently willing and able to carry out complex, coordinated attacks in developed countries outside of its home region has European security services worried. Beyond Europe, what other targets might be next? This further adds to the global interest in the Paris attack.
In sum, Paris shocked the world for a reason
The Paris attack shocked the world for many reasons. It’s true that terrorism in less-developed countries is worth our attention as well. Crises, such as the Syrian civil war, deserve much more media coverage and policy focus.
But the Paris attack continues to draw interest because of the relative rarity of terrorism in France, the fact that the country receives visitors from around the globe, the shocking nature of the attack, and the potential implications for the Islamic State’s future plans.
Brian J. Phillips is assistant professor of international studies at Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE). His research on terrorism and violence has been published in the Journal of Politics, the Journal of Conflict Resolution, and International Studies Quarterly, among other journals.