The November 13 Daesh attacks in Paris, followed shortly by the hostage-taking by al-Mourabitune at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, the capital of Mali, an African country supposedly defended by France, brought into the light not only the failure of the Western approach of the current international terrorism, but also the complex process in which France, one of the traditional “great powers” is losing its status of regional power in western Europe.
France – Soon after the two attacks, on 21 November, The hacktivist group Anonymous has announced that it uncovered plots by Daesh for new terrorist attacks in Paris, as well as in US, Indonesia, Italy and Lebanon, to occur on Sunday, 22 November. Anonymous published the list of the potential targets alongside a statement: “The goal is to make sure the whole world, or at least the people going to these events, know that there have been threats and that there is possibility of an attack to happen. Another goal is to make sure Daesh knows that the world knows and cancels the attacks, which will disorientate them for a while.” At the same time, in Belgium, terrorist threats triggered an unprecedented lockdown for several days of the capital, as security services hunt a network of local Islamist militants linked to the Paris attacks and suspected of planning a similar operation in Brussels.
The November 13 Paris attacks, which killed 129 people in the first suicide bombings and the worst violence on French soil since World War II, came in a country where Islamist violence dates back to the 1990’s Algerian “dirty war” between Islamist militants and Algerian security forces.
One of the most significant (and bloody) incidents was the March 2012 Toulouse and Montauban shootings (three gun attacks targeting French soldiers and Jewish civilians) – in which seven people were killed and five others were injured, four seriously – showed France’s vulnerability in that aspect. The perpetrator, Mohammed Merah, who was shot and killed after a 30-hour siege with police, was of Algerian descent, was raised in an atmosphere of hatred and racism and was supposed to embrace salafism in prison. He also claimed ties with al-Qaeda and, although the French president Nicolas Sarkozy described the attack as isolated, the police investigation suggested that he was not working alone. It was also among the significant cases where racial and social frustration turned to radical Islam and managed to strike terrorist blows on the soil of France.
At the beginning of 2015, France has experienced a blowback from the Syrian conflict, with the 7-9 January 2015 terrorist coup that is now called “the Charlie Hebdo attacks.” The November 13 attacks also constitute the first successful terrorism plot on Western European soil to be “officially” claimed by Daesh. Two weeks before, Daesh crossed another milestone when it claimed its first aviation attack with the downing of Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 in Egypt’s Sinai. This is in addition to a series of attacks in neighboring and/or Arab countries, from Tunisia to Turkey. According to intelligence sources, French President François Hollande was the target of the terrorist attack in Paris. The geography of the six locations targeted by the terrorists points to a precise advance planning of an attack having as primary target Hollande, while at the same time sowing havoc in the French capital, frightening tourists away and shaking the French governing system. One of the terrorists was reported to have shouted before he died, “François Hollande’s foreign policy is to blame!” Another was reported by a witness as shouting “This is for Syria!”, while spraying gunfire in one of the targeted restaurants.
November 13 in France: Security and policy failures According to most analysts, the November 13 attacks happened due to serious and systemic security failures. Most of the suspects – men with established track records of petty criminals turned jihadis, similar to the Toulouse and Montauban shooter, Mohammed Merah – were known to french security officials. The morning after Hollande solemnly declared that France’s borders were closed, one of the suspects, Salah Abdeslam, the “eighth man” and only attacker who was not killed during the November 13 attacks, is believed to have crossed the border to Belgium, and is still “missing”. Also, officials in Ankara said that another suspect, Ismael Omar Mostefai, was previously apprehended and they notified their French counterparts twice, in December 2014 and June 2015. But they never heard back from the French. It is interesting to note that most of the terrorist attacks carried out by Islamic- jihadist militants in Europe recently focused on France or have some connection with France. Take, for example, the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo magazine offices, the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket in Paris, and even the one on the Belgium Jewish Museum in Brussels, carried out by the terrorist Mehdi Nemmouche, a Frenchman who crossed the border to Brussels and then returned to France.
Also, specialists note that much of the problem of terrorism in Europe was created not by foreign terrorists but by homegrown jihadis. The Kouachi brothers, responsible for the Charlie Hebdo killings were born and raised in Paris. So was Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman who, that same weekend, attacked a kosher supermarket in Paris and killed four hostages. Three of the four suicide bombers responsible for the 7/7 attack on London tubes and a bus were born in Britain.
The terrorists might have been part of a sleeper cell of European Islamist “foreign fighters” who returned from Syria and Iraq and maintained contact with Daesh as its operators in France. According to French security sources, there are many dozens of such operators in France who fit this description.
Counterterrorism experts stressed that such kind of simultaneous terror attacks by a large team need months of preparation, precise intelligence, a variety of weapons and significant (a DEBKAfile analysis mentioned up to 200 persons) support resources, estimated to include:
– A group of at least 20 terrorists for executing the six attacks. – A second group of back-up confederates was made up of drivers, who drove the terrorists to the scenes of attack and were ready to extricate any survivors. They handed the attackers their bomb belts, automatic weapons and explosives and acting also as spotters who watched and recording the movements of French security forces. They also photographed the incident. – A command group that planned the attacks, enlisted operatives, directed and coordinated them, and maintained communications among the different teams.
Since it could not have been the work of “lone wolves”, but of an organization with multinational capabilities, it is hard to understand how the far-reaching preparations for a multiple Paris terror assault were not detected by any Western signals intelligence branches, including ECHELON.
In terms of human intelligence, the alienation of the Paris Muslim community and the experiences of young radicals in former Islamic terrorist operations in the past two years have raised a high wall against penetration by French intelligence and police services and any attempts by them to enlist informers, undercover agents or collaborators able to whisper a warning when trouble lies ahead. The French agencies therefore work in the almost total absence of human intelligence from Arabic speakers conversant with the local dialect, and rely almost exclusively on “signal Intelligence” (SIGINT) for warnings.
However, a large-scale terrorist attack was expected by the French intelligence community and several leading experts mentioned that it had a high chance to happen. Among them, police préfet Bernard Squarcini, former head of the French counter-espionage (in an interview with Le Figaro), former anti-terror judge Marc Trévedic, and Yves Trotignon, former member of the counterterrorism department of the DGSE. According to local political observers, the government hesitated to enforce harsher measures in the Muslim communities, an attitude that was linked to the Socialist party’s intention to gain the Muslim population’s votes against Marine le Pen’s National Front in the next regional elections (6 and 13 December). It’s also worth noting that during the campaign, the real problems of the country might be overshadowed if the Socialists join the center-right and the far-right in distracting the French people with la guerre contre Daesh in Syria.
The blowback from the Syrian conflict would have happened in Europe regardless of whether the Islamic State still held Sinjar or whether its command centers in Raqqa were still standing. The real problem is the legions of disaffected, alienated youth with poor employment prospects and no hope. A real solution would begin by reviving the economy and renounce to the pervasive elitism that plagues the country (everyone knows France isn’t a true meritocracy, especially the hundreds of thousands of disaffected young men with poor employment prospects).
Historic legacies History is useful for understanding why France represents a particular target for Daesh. Islamic extremism, in France or in the Middle East, is a catastrophic response to history, not just a near-term response to the use of French fighter-bombers in Syria. However, a more nuanced response than total war is needed to deal with the underlying rage that fuels this confrontation. There needs to be much more understanding of the history and, for the French, the role that it has played in exacerbating the clash. In particular, France needs to undergo a deep self-examination, and a fundamental revision of the current practice of sidelining its large Muslim population, leaving them disaffected, poorly educated, underemployed, and ripe for recruitment to terrorism.
In this context, many analysts evoked the long history of conflict, empire, religious war, colonial intrusion, disrespect, racism, and invasion that has characterized the relationship between France and the Muslim world.
France has been a central arena for the confrontation between Islam and political-religious Christian Europe for 1,300 years. In the Battle of Poitiers (also known as the Battle of Tours) in 732 AD, Charles Martel, the Frankish military leader (and Charlemagne’s grandfather) defeated the Umayyad Caliphate and its leader, Abd-ar-Rahman, who ruled the Iberian Peninsula, and part of what today is southern France. This victory permanently halted the expansion of Islam into Europe and began the expulsion of Islam from the continent.
All French students are taught its history and are aware that the line of demarcation between Muslim and Christian Europe was drawn, in part, in their own country. As a result, a sense of cultural, military, and political conflict with Islam and a fear of Islamization have never been far from French consciousness.
Another significant period for the decline of France as a world power and the incoming of population from its colonies was generated by the Napoleonic war losses, in which the French Empire lost at least 916,000 men. This represented 38% of the conscription class of 1790–1795. This rate is over 14% higher than the losses suffered by the same generation one hundred years later fighting Imperial Germany. The French population suffered long-term effects through a low male-to-female population ratio. Combined with new agrarian laws under the Napoleonic Empire that required landowners to divide their lands to all their sons rather than to leave it to the first born, France’s population never recovered. By the time of the First World War France had lost its demographic superiority over Germany and Austria and even Great Britain. The feeling of historic conflict and threat was amplified by the 200-year-old pattern of French colonialism in North Africa and the Middle East, France’s “near abroad.” French colonialism meant the confrontation between French settlers and their heirs and the people of Algeria, beginning in the 1830s and ending with Algerian independence in 1962. Also to be added is the French colonial role in Morocco and Tunisia, with whom there are still deep and continuing cultural and economic ties. Many Moroccans and Tunisians also migrated north to France. After World War I, the French mandate in Lebanon and Syria left a legacy of cultural and economic ties between modern Syria, Lebanon, and France.
Given this history, it is hardly surprising that there has been a long experience of Muslim migration from North Africa and the Middle East to France, giving it the second-largest Muslim population (4.7 million) and the largest Muslim share of its national population (7.5 percent) of any western European country. Equally, that history goes a long way toward explaining the ambivalence of the French toward Islam and this migrant population.