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From Charlie Hebdo to the Promenade des Anglais

19 Jul 2016 - 15:41
Source: Alexandre Duret-Lutz/flickr

Is France a new ‘dar el harb ’ (1)?
Since 2012, France has been struck by nine Islamist-related terrorist attacks, killing 249 people in total. The latest attack in Nice during the national Bastille Day celebrations caused the death of 84 people, including ten children. Highly traumatic given the choice of place, date and the number of casualties, this attack also puts an abrupt end to the short-lived optimism resulting from the absence of major security incidents during the recent UEFA Euro tournament. It has also exacerbated political tensions in the country, nine months before the next presidential elections.

From Charlie Hebdo to the Promenade des Anglais: The agony of the French political unity
Following the attack in Nice and only a couple of hours after announcing the end of the state of emergency by 26 July, French President, François Hollande, decided to extend it by three months. In addition to the harsh measures already adopted in the wake of the 2015 attacks, the Minister of the Interior also called on “all French patriots to enlist in the operational army reserve” to support the security and military efforts against terrorism – highlighting the current constraints of the security forces (budget and size).

Whereas such attacks generally tend to be followed by an outpouring of national unity, the policy of the current government and Prime Minister Valls’s alarmist discourse (“terrorism is part of our daily life”) and fatalist predictions (“there will be other attacks”) are now openly criticised: from the former Mayor of Nice (C. Estrosi) who claimed, just the day after the attack, that he had warned president Hollande of inadequate resources, to former president Nicolas Sarkozy stating that “none of the necessary measures that should have been taken over the last 18 months have been taken so far” and calling for a total war against terrorism. Furthermore, former Prime Minister and right-wing presidential candidate Alain Juppé emphasised that “neither fatalism or naivety can be tolerated”.

Even the recent well-documented parliamentary report on public funds dedicated to fighting terrorism in France since January 2015 (2) has apparently failed to prevent the ongoing presidential campaign from veering into excessive and counter-productive posturing. Most of the political leaders and presidential candidates are now placing the emphasis on repressive measures rather than comprehensive methods to effectively tackle the root causes of violent extremism. 

Ad hoc radicalisation and daily terrorism
With the 2015 and 2016 attacks in France, terrorism took on a different form. Assailants are younger, with no or very little battlefield experience, poorly educated in Islamic doctrine (less than the ‘Afghan Holy Warriors’ of the past) and very sensitive to simplistic radical arguments (3). In addition to this very swift, ‘under the radar’ process of radicalisation, the latest attacks also highlighted the criminal record of most of the terrorists, sometimes with no radical religious features. 

These new non-professional jihadi profiles are evolving, alongside new terror techniques that require less money, less training and that are more flexible in terms of planning and ‘human resources’. This new generation of terrorists is strongly supported by the Islamic State which openly called on its fighters to ‘innovate’. Indeed, from 2014, and the beginning of the air campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq, IS’s chief of media, Syrian Abou Mohammed Al-Adnani, urged all ‘soldiers of the Caliphate’ to attack targets in countries where they live by all means: “If you cannot blow up a bomb or shoot, smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him” (4).

More recently, one French jihadi recruiter appeared on video to urge his followers to stop coming to Syria and Iraq and encouraged them to commit terrorist attacks in France: “Rip up your flight ticket to Turkey, firdaws is in front of you, you manipulate two or three thugs, you can find a weapon in any suburb” (5).

Because of its colonial history, its military commitments in the Levant and in the Maghreb-Sahel, its strong societal secularism and the long-standing marginalisation of its suburban youth, France appears to be a major target for terrorist organisations. With an estimated 2000 radicalised French nationals or residents involved in jihadist networks (6) , no rehabilitation programmes for returnees and a strong emphasis on repressive measures, the French government is struggling badly to find a way to fight terrorism. The ongoing presidential campaign is already negatively affecting the general debate on security by silencing moderate voices and amplifying demands for strong/repressive measures which will not address the root causes of violent extremism in France in the long-run.

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(1) ‘House of war’

(2) Rapport fait au nom de la commission d’enquête relative aux moyens mis en œuvre par l’État pour lutter contre le terrorisme depuis le 7 janvier 2015

(3) See Van Ginkel, B., and E. Entenmann (Eds.), “The Foreign Fighters Phenomenon in the European Union. Profiles, Threats & Policies”, The International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague 7, no. 2 (2016

(4) Quoted in the Independent

(5) See Radio France International journalist David Thompson’s Twitter account

(6) Van Ginkel, B., and E. Entenmann (Eds.), “The Foreign Fighters Phenomenon in the European Union. Profiles, Threats & Policies”, The International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague 7, no. 2 (2016), p. 31