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Paris Attacks and their Implications for France

Raj Kumar Sharma writes: There are a number of important implications for France to be drawn from this attack. First is that the ISIS is expanding its area of operations beyond its Middle East strongholds. This means that it would carry out al Qaida type attacks on Western countries on their soil.

On November 13, 2015, France witnessed deadliest terrorist attack on its soil since the Algerian War. It was carried out by the Islamic State (IS) in a series of coordinated terrorist attacks—consisting of mass shootings, suicide bombings, and hostage-taking, leaving 136 dead and 352 injured. President of France, Francois Hollande was evacuated from a stadium where explosion were heard 15 minutes into a football match. In these unprecedented conditions, national emergency was imposed in France for the first time since the Second World War; borders were closed while defence forces were mobilized.[1] The attacks came at a time when the IS was suffering losses in Syria due to air strikes by the West and Russia. One of its executioners, Mohammed Emwazi, known as Jihadi John was recently killed in a drone strike by the US. For France, the attack came five days before its only aircraft carrier; the Charles de Gaulle was to sail into the Persian Gulf for action against the IS.

Why France is being Targeted?

France, along with Germany, has the highest Muslim population in the European Union. As of 2010, there were 4.7 million Muslims in France, making up 7.5% of the total population.[2] The Ministry of Interior has flagged 1,422 persons as being involved in the Syrian conflict alone.[3] Around 200 of these fighters are estimated to have returned home.[4] A French parliamentary investigation earlier revealed that almost half of the total Europeans fighting for the ISIS in Syria and Iraq are from France.[5]

In comparison to other European countries, France has been hit hard by Islamic terrorism in recent times. There are two main reasons, according to Professor John R Bowen that could explain why France is a target for Jihad.[6] One, France’s interaction with Muslim world is longer than any other Western country starting with conquest of Algeria in 1830. Most of Muslim Africa remains backyard of France while it also took control of Syria and Lebanon after the First World War. However, unlike other European colonial powers, the French never really left their former colonies and continued to intervene in their internal matters to defend France’s national interests in Africa and the Near East. Today, it means battling al Qaeda and ISIS in Mali, Iraq and Syria. Second, the French Republic has nourished a sense of combat with the Church which has translated to resistance of religion of any kind. Hence, contemporary France thus produced a strong tradition, especially in Paris, of opposition to organized religion. This means there is prohibition over wearing religious symbols like head scarf and turban in public places. Minorities like Muslims and Sikhs have been struggling against such laws in France, as these things are important aspects of their religion. Muslims in particular feel alienated in French society. Muslims in France are culturally distinct in ways that deeply threaten French society today; for they challenge France’s century-long commitment to the separation of church and state (what the French call ‘laicite’) and its 50-year struggle for gender equality.[7] The disgruntled Muslim citizens of France become easy targets of radical organization like ISIS in their battle against the West.

Tough Anti-Terror Laws

France has been at the forefront in fight against terrorism under President Hollande. He sent French troops to Mali in January 2013 to support anti-terrorist operations. In view of large number of French nationals joining IS, Hollande has authorized air strikes on IS strongholds in Syria apart from deploying French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle to the Gulf to fight the IS. In January 2015, offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher supermarket were attacked by Islamic militants affiliated to ISIS and al Qaida. After these attacks, France In May 2015, French parliament enacted a new anti-terror law, which authorized intelligence agencies to tap phones and emails without seeking permission from a judge.[8] In one of the most controversial parts of the law, the security agencies have been authorized to collect data from all internet and phone users in France. The law was supported by both, politicians from the Socialist majority and the conservative opposition while the government argued that it was urgent with the apparent spread of Islamist radicalization in France.[9] Anti-terror measures worth 940 million Euros have been introduced since January this year in France including a “stop jihadism” website, training for judicial services to identify those who might be under the influence of terrorist networks and increased recruitment to the secret services, police and army.[10]

Intelligence Failure?

However, it seems that the ISIS has been able to break through French intelligence and security agencies while successfully carrying out Nov 13 terrorist attacks. The attack has come at a time when Paris was already on high alert after the January attacks this year. While the details of the terrorist plot are still emerging, it appears that the attackers were able to go off the grid by avoiding electronic communication. This made digital surveillance futile while the terrorist probably used traditional intelligence methods to plan and execute the attacks.[11]

Implications for France

There are a number of important implications for France to be drawn from this attack. First is that the ISIS is expanding its area of operations beyond its Middle East strongholds. This means that it would carry out al Qaida type attacks on Western countries on their soil. Second, France, often hailed as ‘cradle of liberty and freedom’ will face a tough choice to balance between surveillance, civil liberties and minority rights in the battle between religious fundamentalism and Western values. Policymakers would be under pressure to take effective action against terrorism which could add to the rise of right wing politics in not only France but throughout the European Union. In France, National Front leader, Marine Le Pen has been vocal about incompatibility between French values and Islam. After the Nov 13 attacks, she said, “Islamist fundamentalism must be annihilated. France must ban Islamist organizations, close radical mosques and expel foreigners who preach hatred in our country as well as illegal migrants who have nothing to do here”. There will be an impact on refugee policy as well, as early details reveal that one of the attackers was a refugee from Syria. Entry into one Schengen country from other is facilitated without additional checks.

Internationally, ISIS is expected to come under barrage of air strikes from West as well as Russia. There could be some cooperation between West and Russia over how to tackle ISIS while efforts for finding a diplomatic solution to ISIS crisis could gain momentum. The West could accept Assad regime for the time being in Syria while accepting a solution to the crisis.

Conclusion

Paris attacks could be described as Europe’s 9/11 or 26/11. The global security has a big challenge today to deal with. India has been advocating for tough measures and collective approach to deal with terrorism. There is need to carefully calibrate any policy response to Paris attacks in order to ensure it is proportionate. Post 9/11, the US curtailed individual freedom while the state became more powerful. Will France try to integrate its Muslims or give more powers to state? It remains to be seen which way France will go.

Endnotes

 

[1]Ummu Salma Bava (2015), “Paris attacks reveal the vulnerability of European cities”, Hindustan Times, Nov 14, URL: http://www.hindustantimes.com/analysis/paris-attacks-reveal-the-vulnerability-of-european-cities-prof-salma-bava/story-9m9QFHsTe4cDcZ30zShfWK.html

[2]Conrad Hackett (2015), “5 facts about the Muslim population in Europe”, January 15, URL: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/01/15/5-facts-about-the-muslim-population-in-europe/

[3] Eglantine Raux (2015), “France, ‘cradle of liberty’, struggles to balance anti-terrorism law and rights”, May 7, 2015, URL: http://theconversation.com/france-cradle-of-liberty-struggles-to-balance-anti-terrorism-law-and-rights-41412

[4] Marco Chown Oved  (2015), “Analysts blame Paris attacks on intelligence failures, not refugees”, Nov 14, URL: http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2015/11/14/analysts-blame-paris-attacks-on-intelligence-failures-not-refugees.html

[5] F M Maloof (2015), “Half of al Qaida, IS Fighters from France”, URL: http://www.wnd.com/2015/04/half-of-isis-al-qaida-european-fighters-from-france/

[6]John R Bowen (2015), “Three Reasons France Became a Target for Jihad”, Time, Jan 8, URL: http://time.com/3660002/france-muslim-africa-organized-religion/

[7] Claire Adida, David Laitin and Marie-Anne Valfort (2015), “Terror in France: implications for Muslim integration” Jan 14, URL: https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2015/01/14/terror-in-france-implications-for-muslim-integration/

[8] Angelique Chrisafis (2015), “France passes new surveillance law in wake of Charlie Hebdo attack”, May 5, URL: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/05/france-passes-new-surveillance-law-in-wake-of-charlie-hebdo-attack

[9] Lizzie Dearden (2015), “French parliament approves ‘intrusive’ surveillance laws after Charlie Hebdo attack”, May 6, URL: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/french-parliament-approves-intrusive-surveillance-laws-after-charlie-hebdo-attack-10228206.html

[10] Eglantine Raux Op. Cit.

[11] Terrorism experts say Islamic State is ‘almost certainly’ behind the Paris attacks, URL: http://wnews.org/Terrorism-experts-say-Islamic-au-75766.html

 

Raj Kumar Sharma is a Research Associate at the United Service Institution of India, New Delhi.

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