Analysis - Security Studies

Incubating Contexts

Implications of the Nice Terror Attack…Why France?

Friday، July 15، 2016
Incubating Contexts

France has “moved into a new era” where the state “will have to live with terrorism.” This is the main conviction that was deeply rooted in the mind of Prime Minister Manuel Valls, when he commented on the terrorist attack in the city of Nice, during Bastille Day celebrations on July 14, 2016. At least 84 people were killed in the attack. It became quite clear that even the most stringent security measures are no longer sufficient to prevent individual terrorist attacks, and the security margin that was achieved by France in previous stages has vanished under the pressure of repeated terrorist attacks. This reality increases the intensity of debate on the reasons why terrorists are increasingly targeting France, in spite of the state of emergency imposed since November 2015.  

Repeat Attacks

The attack carried out on the French city of Nice, on July 14, was not an isolated incident in the course of the close association between France and terrorism. In the past few years, terrorism topped the threats faced by France. On March 19, 2012, a French-Algerian man called Mohammad Murah who was a member of Al-Qaeda, conducted three terrorist attacks in the cities of Toulouse and Montauban, killing 7 people, including 3 military personnel, 3 children, and a Jewish Rabbi. French police finally eliminated the perpetrator after resistance lasted for more than 30 hours.

On January 7, 2015, the two brothers, Sharif and Saeed Kawashi, both members of Al-Qaeda, killed 12 people during an armed attack on the headquarter of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Among the victims were the Editor-in-Chief, a number of caricature painters and two policemen. Furthermore, on January 9, 2015, Ahmad Kulibali, a member of ISIS took a number of hostages in a store selling Jewish products, in Porte de Vincennes, east of Paris. The terrorist killed one policeman and four civilians, before being shot dead by Special Security Forces.

Within the same context, on April 19, 2015, French Security Forces arrested Ahmad Allam who was accused of preparing to commit terrorist attacks on churches in Paris. Followed by an attack on June 26, 2015 conducted by Yassin Al-Salehani against US-owned factory, Air Products & Chemicals near Lyon in southeastern France. The attack was perpetrated on board a vehicle raising the flag of ISIS; and it resulted in a fire, killing one person, and inflicting injuries on three others. On August 21, 2015, Ayoob Al-Khazani attempted a shooting and stabbing attack on board the Thalys high-speed train coming from Amsterdam to Paris, the attack caused injuries to several passengers, and the terrorist was arrested.

The most violent terrorist attack in the history of France occurred in a series of simultaneous attacks witnessed by Paris on November 13, 2015. The series included suicide attacks targeting a French football stadium during a match between France and Germany attended by the French President François Hollande; and heavy shooting on some restaurants and cafes in east Paris. This deadliest attack was committed by at least four armed men wearing explosive jackets assaulted the Bataclan theatre. They opened fire on the audience, resulting in a death toll of 130 people, and injuring more than 350 others.

Although the frequency of terrorist attacks reverted in 2016, another attack occurred on June 13, 2016. A man, who pledged allegiance to ISIS, attacked and killed a French police officer and his partner with a knife near Paris. According to data released by the French Ministry of Interior, in the 19 months between 2015 and 2016, the total number of victims of terrorist attacks were 334 individuals died, and hundreds of others wounded. This confirms the fact that France has transformed into accommodating hotbed of terrorism and extremism in Europe.

Implications of the Nice Attack

Reviewing the attacks witnessed by France in the recent period reveals that terrorism has transformed into the “new normal.” This new normal phenomenon obliges the world to adapt with, and to expect the probability of terrorist attack occurrences in unimaginable locations and timings. The most important implications and messages conveyed from the latest attack in Nice can be summed in the following points:

1. Focus on Soft Targets: ISIS carries out terrorist attacks in a number of Arab countries, targeting both areas deploying military troops and police officers (through the use of car bombs driven into guarded and fortified areas followed by heavy gun fires and RBG rockets), and suicide explosions in civilian areas targeting adherents of other creeds and religions, such as Shiite mosques. Unlike those assaults, the attacks in France solely focus on hitting soft targets where security measures are applied at a minimum level. Such areas enable members of terrorist groups, like ISIS, to carry out consecutive attacks, and inflict the maximum number of casualties among civilians, as evidenced by the July 14 attack targeting the Azure Coast in Nice during fireworks celebrations.

2. Utilizing Primitive Weapons: Acquiring weapons to carry out terrorist attacks is no longer a difficult task for lone wolves, who sympathize with terrorist groups. Lone wolf perpetrators are now able to execute attacks by using primitive weapons and crushing crowds with trucks. The audio records of Abu Muhammad Al-Adnani, a leading figure in ISIS in 2014, included emphasis on the fact that terrorist attacks in Western states could be executed by stabbing targeted individuals with knives, hitting them with stones, or running them over with cars, in the case where access to weapons and explosives is stumbled.

3. Rise of New Radicals: It could be said that Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel represents a new generation of radicals in Western countries. Their most notable features are their exposure to extremely fast recruitment processes without being noticed by security apparatuses. In addition, they have previous criminal records; they suffer from frustration, mental illness, and their conduct is consistently attributed to anger and severe violence. Moreover, they do not show any signs of religiosity and do not attend mosques regularly, placing them out of the circles of suspicion in the eyes of security authorities.

In this regard, some security investigations considered more likely the presence of a connection between Muhammad Bouhlel and Omar Diabi, the Senegalese jihadist who is a member of Al-Nusra Front that lived in Nice before moving to Syria. They both belong to the same social settings in French city; which indicates that Bouhlel was subjected to a fast recruitment process during a short period before executing the terrorist attack.

4. Gaps in Strict Security Measures: Bouhlel succeeded in executing the terrorist attack in Nice, despite applying strict security measures in France since November 2015, and imposing a state of emergency, which enabled security authorities to arrest 550 suspects, inspect 3,600 houses, and monitor a huge number of citizens and residents. Also, authorities identified the locations of 3,000 individuals considered as suspected members of terrorist groups.

In spite of the deployment of thousands of security troops, the presence of more than 1,000 surveillance cameras across the city of Nice, and the stringent security measures in France in general, especially during the 2016 UEFA European Championship, Bouhlel succeeded in taking advantage of the loopholes in said measures. Some of those gaps were: deploying less than 50 security troops on the Côte d'Azur beach during Bastille Day celebrations; dismantling some security checkpoints before the end of the fireworks show. Moreover, Bouhlel was seen inspecting the site of the terrorist operation at least twice, three days before executing the operation. He drove roaming the whole area using the rental truck, and he succeeded in acquiring weapons needed, without being noticed by the police apparatus. Bouhlel achieved all of this despite the legal ban imposed on the sale and circulation of light arms in France.

5. Implications of the Attack Timing: The timing of the attack cannot be considered a mere coincidence. It contains symbolic connotations similar to the approach adopted by terrorist groups in performing attacks during national events and public celebrations. This can be considered an attack targeting the symbols and pillars of the nation-state model. Furthermore, the attack came a few months before the French presidential elections scheduled for April 2017. It also came in the middle of degrading support to current President François Hollande and the French Socialist Party, along with the rise of right-wing currents led by the National Front Party under the leadership of Marine Le Pen. Also, there is increasing support for former Prime Minister Alain Juppé, who will be nominated to compete in the presidential elections by the Republican party, Les Républicains, classified in the mid-right.

Why is France a target?

Targeting France repeatedly by terrorist groups is associated with the presence of prepared contexts that made France among the countries incubating terrorism and gangs of organized crime in the heart of the European continent. The most important reasons behind the extensive penetration of extremism and terrorism into France are the following:

1. Failure of integrating minorities in society: France failed to absorb and integrate Muslims within its social fabric, despite applying assimilation policies towards migrants arriving from North Africa, over decades. As per data and statistics collected by the Pew Research Center in November 2015, the number of French Muslims amounts to 4.7 million people, which comprises 7.5 percent of the total population. In addition, there are huge numbers of illegal foreign residents, refugees, and migrants.

Furthermore, polls conducted by the Pew Research Center in the spring of 2015, Muslims in France face negative views by at least 24 per cent of interviewees who were French citizens. In the same context, another poll, conducted by the IPSOS Foundation in January 2013 and published in Le Monde newspaper, revealed that only 26 per cent of French citizens believe that Islam is in harmony with the values of French society, compared with 89 per cent in favor of Catholicism and 75 per cent for Judaism.

After the escalation of terrorist attacks in France, Muslim communities living in France faced more isolation, and repeated hostilities, along with escalating Islamophobia and extremist rightist trends. In this regard, in January 2015, the British newspaper, The Independent, monitored 26 Muslim mosques in France that had suffered from various aggressions in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack. Incidents of hostilities against Muslims were repeated following the subsequent terrorist attacks in France.

2. The Rise of Extremist Trends: Statistics issued by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) in December 2015 confirm that France is an incubator for the largest number of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, compared to other European countries. The number of foreign fighters amounted to 1,500 French citizens, compared to about 700 from the UK, 680 from Germany, 650 from Belgium, and 300 from Sweden.

In this context, terrorist attacks witnessed by Paris in November 2015, revealed the presence of a dangerous trend adopted by the fighters returning from Syria. For example, Abdelhamid AbaaOud, a holder of Belgian nationality, succeeded in penetrating the security measures imposed on the French borders. He mobilized freely between Syria, Belgium, and France before executing the terrorist operation in Paris. Moreover, he took part in four other terrorist operations in France, particularly the assault on Villejuif Church, South of Paris in April 2015.

3. Targeting the Symbols of the French Model: The increase of terrorist attacks targeting France is linked to terrorist groups seeking to destroy the symbolic aspect of the French secular nation-state, which is based on the separation between religion and politics. Religious currents consider this secular model in extreme contrast to their ideological doctrines. This trend can also be perceived through the description used by ISIS to portray France in more than one statement, classifying it as carrying “the banner of the cross” across Europe, to convey the trend of targeting France.  

4. War on ISIS: France is considered as one of the most active states involved in military operations against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Terrorist attacks against Paris, in last November, came only a few days after deploying the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle carrying onboard Rafale fighter jets to the Arabian Gulf, to participate in the war against ISIS. Similarly, the recent attack in Nice came only hours after the announcement by the French President François Hollande to resend the Charles de Gaulle to the Middle East in the coming autumn, and to deploy an additional 500 military advisors to Iraq, to participate in liberating the areas occupied by ISIS. This deployment is in addition to 400 troops already performing training tasks for Iraqi forces and Kurdish Peshmerga forces. Hollande’s announcements also included an emphasis on the necessary move not to limit the operation to confronting ISIS; rather the mission should extend to attacking the strongholds of the Al-Nusra Front, which is no less notorious than ISIS.

5. Expansion of a Regional Role: France’s involvement in the Middle East recently increased and can be perceived through the increase of the French arms deals with various states in the region. A move considered by ISIS as one of the most important reasons for the expansion of military capabilities of those countries, and one of the reasons for targeting, by ISIS, the French military presence in north Mali and West Africa in general. Also, worth noting is France’s efforts to enhance its political role in Libya, which pushed ISIS to carry out military operations there to compel France to regress to its regional surroundings, away from the ISIS’s range of influence.

6. Increase in Border Fluidity: Terrorist groups are taking advantage of France’s strategic location, as it facilitates their movements among European countries. Terrorists utilize the weak security measures at train stations and highways to be able to mobilize among European countries. This situation enables terrorists to move without any restrictions across France to other countries of the European continent. This also has relation to the skill of terrorist groups in exploiting the flood of refugees across the borders into the European Union moving in disguise among refugees. This is what Ahmad Al-Muhammad, the terrorist involved in Paris operations in November 2015, has done. He was registered in Greece in October 2015 and was given a passport as a refugee, he then moved from Belgium to France just before executing the terrorist operation in Paris.

As a whole, it is more likely that the increase in terrorist activities will lead to an escalation in the right-wing extremist popularity, and the decline of leftist parties. An increase in hostile practices targeting minorities in French society and a change in policies for assimilating migrants are also expected. Rules for moving across Europe are likely to be reviewed, particularly after seeing the results of the Brexit poll. Moreover, there will probably be more strict measures for receiving migrants arriving from Middle East countries; and more stringent measures to enhance border security. Anticipatory preventive interventions in the zones of armed conflicts in the south of the Mediterranean will increase, to preempt threats and dry up sources of terrorism.

Keywords: TerrorismISISSecurity StudiesNiceTerror AttacksFranceSoft TargetsEurope

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