ISIS is terrifying, but it has little economic impact

A few days after the assault on Paris, it is hard to name the businesses that were singled out by the terrorists. The public venues - the Bataclan theatre and the Stade de France - are memorable. The cafes and bars of eastern Paris - Le Carillon, Comptoir Voltaire, La Belle Equipe - were not symbolic in themselves. They were simply places for people to gather.

Nor, despite the terrible bloodshed, have the attacks had a deep physical impact on the fabric of the city. There are broken windows and some bomb damage, but Paris survives largely as before.

In terms of disrupting physical infrastructure or the economy - the energy supplies, communications and supply chains of France - the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) might as well not have bothered.

Al-Qaeda's transnational operating model has been compared with global franchising: its brand is adopted by semi- independent groups that organise and carry out their own attacks.

To judge by Paris, ISIS prefers to outsource. From its supply chain of military-grade weapons to cross-border planning of explosions, it is a multinational. "Designed in Syria. Manufactured in Belgium" could be its slogan. Yet, the economic impact of Islamist terrorists, who are obsessed with causing as many deaths as possible, is usually minimal, apart from on tourism and travel. The attacks of Sept 11, 2001 had little long-term effect after the initial US$90 billion of damage. The 2008 financial crisis and the 2011 Japanese earthquake, which disrupted global supply chains, were more powerful.


Armed police officers patrolling the La Defense business district in front of the Grande Arche in Paris on Monday. The lack of economic impact of most terrorist attacks could be because most are small and localised, such as those in Paris which affected only those in the vicinity during the violence. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Attacks, such as that on the World Trade Center and the Madrid train bombings of 2004, did not curtail growth in global trade. The damping of trade growth, which dropped to 3 per cent in 2013 compared with an average of 7.1 per cent growth between 1987 and 2007, has other causes.

The Paris death toll was high, but its financial impact was even less than the fallout from an accidental explosion at a German chemical plant in 2012. That killed two workers and halted the production of a resin used in brake and fuel parts which, in turn, inflicted supply shortages on United States and European carmakers.

For this reason alone, French President Francois Hollande's talk of war on ISIS is misguided. The group may have formed a state within Syria and Iraq by controlling the oil industry inside its territories, but its cross-border brand of terrorism is not warlike. Killing people is terrifying, but that alone is insufficient in war: you must destroy infrastructure and degrade supplies, as the Nazis did in the 1940s by bombing the east London docks.

Islamist terrorism, which in the mid-1990s overtook leftist forms of insurrection in which industries and business leaders were often primary targets, does not do that. It attempts to encourage a clash of civilisations by fomenting terror in what ISIS calls "the grey zone" - the millions of people who do not want to be trapped in a caliphate and prefer to enjoy their liberty elsewhere. Beneath the scathing rhetoric about "targeting the capital of prostitution and vice" in Paris, ISIS recognises a reality: That it would like to destroy the French economy, but it cannot.

As Professor Todd Sandler, who studies the economic effects of terrorism at the University of Texas, said: "They can scare the heck out of us, but they do not seem to have much economic impact."

It is partly a matter of scale. Most terrorist attacks, even those in Paris, are small and localised: if you do not happen to be nearby at the time, you are not in danger. It also reflects the resilience of diversified modern economies. There are some choke points in power and communications infrastructure, but most are well guarded - the soft targets are less financially critical.

"Companies may suffer, but industries, as a whole, are very robust," said Professor Yossi Sheffi, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In order to create long-term damage, terrorism has to be sustained, focused and targeted at a small area. The output of Spain's Basque region was estimated to have been reduced by 10 percentage points by a 20-year separatist campaign - much of it, unlike with Islamist terrorism, was aimed at industrial targets.

The Paris attacks may dent France's economy and those of other European countries if governments respond - as some are threatening to - by reinstating border controls and weakening the Schengen Agreement that allows free movement of people and goods. Citigroup economists warned this week of "a growing backlash against a key element of globalisation".

ISIS would welcome it as an economic side effect of its religious offensive, but it is not a given. Attacks, such as that on the World Trade Center and the Madrid train bombings of 2004, did not curtail growth in global trade. The damping of trade growth, which dropped to 3 per cent in 2013 compared with an average of 7.1 per cent growth between 1987 and 2007, has other causes.

The most significant, according to one International Monetary Fund study, is a levelling in supply chain fragmentation and the "back and forth" of industrial components after a prolonged growth in the outsourcing of US and European manufacturing to China and Asia. Globalisation paused not because of terrorism or trade protectionism, but because it had reached limits.

Terrorism has its own logic. It fosters fear far in excess of the danger it presents and is a marketing campaign for recruits. It does what its planners want. But set against natural events, such as earthquakes, and the ebb and flow of industry and trade, even large attacks are economically minor.

It is hard to keep in mind when faced with atrocities, but it is the reality. Many Parisians fell but Paris stands.

THE FINANCIAL TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 20, 2015, with the headline 'ISIS is terrifying, but it has little economic impact'. Print Edition | Subscribe