Tuesday, November 17, 2015
The coordinated attacks that struck targets in Paris and the suburb of Saint Denis last week put France on a virtual war footing. The carnage was horrific—at least 129 dead and 352 wounded. But even more shocking than the body count was the realization that the country was now confronted with a new kind of enemy: radicalized home-grown terrorists, supported from abroad, nurtured on a cult of death, and craving the transdendence of martyrdom. Unlike the assault on Charlie Hebdo last January, these assaults—the first suicide attacks on French soil—did not focus on a single symbolic target but sought to kill as many people as possible, raining panic and fear on the whole population.
It began at 9:20 on a chilly Friday night with a bomb blast outside the Stade de France in Saint Denis, where President François Hollande was attending a soccer match between France and Germany. Mistaken at first for fireworks, the explosion was followed by a second, then a third detonation. As security officials whisked Hollande away to safety, they received reports of coordinated attacks in Paris: heavily armed gunmen had burst into the Bataclan music hall, firing indiscriminately into the crowd of rock fans and taking the survivors hostage; other attackers raked gunfire across nearby sidewalk cafes and restaurants, leaving a sprawl of bleeding bodies in their wake. By the time French security forces stormed the Bataclan shortly after midnight, killing one assailant as two others blew themselves up with explosive belts, 89 concert-goers were dead. Four other attackers were pulverized by their suicide bombs, three outside the Stade de France and one on a Paris street corner.
Addressing the nation late Friday night, the president promised a “pitiless” response to the worst terror attack ever carried out on French soil. “What we defend,” he said, his voice shaking with emotion, “is our country but much more than that: it is the values of humanity.” On Saturday morning, he denounced the attacks as “an act of war” organized from “outside the country with help from inside.” The presumed author: the so-called Islamic State based in Syria.
Invoking a little used law dating back to the Algerian War, Hollande declared a state of emergency that allows authorities, at their discretion, to carry out warantless searches, impose curfews, and ban public meetings. On Monday, addressing a rare joint session of Parliament at the Chateau de Versailles, Hollande called for a three-month extension of the state of emergency, increased assets for police and justice authorities, and powers to strip French citizenship from binationals convicted of terrorism. He said he would seek broader surveillance powers and a constitutional amendment that would enable the state to take exceptional security measures. On the military front, he promised to intensify French air strikes against ISIS targets in Syria, aided by the arrival in the region next month of the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle. On Sunday night, French fighter-bombers aided by U.S. targeting information attacked the ISIS headquarters in Raqqa, destroying a command center and a training camp. A second French air strike followed on Monday.
By Sunday, French police had identified six of the seven assailants killed in the assaults—including four French nationals. A car with Belgian plates found near the Bataclan put authorities on the track of the possible eighth member of the commando. The suspect, Saah Abdelsalam, is believed to have returned to Belgium but remains at large. French and Belgian authorities also launched a manhunt for Addelhamid Abaaoud, a 27-year-old Belgian and ISIS fighter believed to be the mastermind of last week’s assaults. A Syrian passport found near the body of one of the suicide bombers was traced to a man who had entered Greece last month as a refugee. The discovery raised new fears that foreign terrorists may be infiltrating the migrant flows into Europe and caused some countries, including Poland, to heighten their resistance to accepting new refugees.
ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks with an online communiqué whose comic-book language would be ludicrous if the subject were not so dire. It praised the “blessed attack” on the “capital of abominations and perversion, which carries the banner of the cross in Europe.” The “accurately chosen targets” included “the Stade the fool of France, François Hollande, was present” and the Bataclan music hall “where hundreds of apostates had gathered in a profligate prostitution party.” The statement closed with an ominous injunction: “This attack is just the beginning of the storm and a warning to those who want to learn its lessons.”
The horrific events did come as a surprise. Indeed, French security experts had expected a big coordinated attack like this for months. In an interview published in Paris Match last September, Marc Trévidic, formerly the country’s top antiterrorism judge, called France “the principal target of an army of terrorists with unlimited means…and a desire, which they have expressed clearly and unceasingly, to strike us…The real war that ISIS intends to wage on our soil has not yet begun.”
Why France? Partly because France has been carrying out air strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria as part of the 10-nation U.S.-led coalition. The attackers who burst into the Bataclan shouted, “You can blame Hollande for this. He didn’t have to intervene in Syria.” But that is only part of the explanation. As the ISIS communiqué suggests, France was also targeted because of its culture and lifestyle, its commitment to a kind of secular liberty and joie de vivre that is an abomination in the eyes of the islamists. The young rock fans had nothing to do with Syria, no more than the café patrons enjoying a glass of wine and a chat with friends at their sidewalk tables. “The targets are no longer identified,” says Gilles Kepel, a specialist on Islam at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris. “The goal is to kill blindly. In their eyes, all those who live in France are Crusaders, disbelievers, or renegades. All the French are targets.”
With its large Muslim population, France also offers a fertile breeding ground for Islamic radicalism, especialy among embittered youths in the crime-ridden, high-unemployment suburbs. According to Prime Minister Manuel Valls, more than 1500 young French Muslims have gone to fight alongside ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Those who return, thoroughly indoctrinated, battle-hardened, and endowed with military training, constitute a potential cadre of terrorist fighters on French soil. It is no longer the “lone wolf” phenomenon, but the threat of organized, coordinated operations that worries French security experts.
France is also an attractive target in terms of the jihadists’ overall strategy of dividing European societies precisely by provoking an anti-Muslim backlash. “They see Europe as the soft underbelly,” says Kepel, “because of its economic difficulties and ethnic tensions. Their aim is to create discord in the countries of Europe in order to eventually bring about a civil war on which they can build their utopia of the caliphat.” Indeed, the Paris attacks were followed by a series of anti-Muslim incidents, including the drive-by shooting and wounding of a Turk in the northern city of Cambrai by a man who later committed suicide.
Hollande’s calls for national unity in soon ran into partisan strains amidst a hard-fought campaign around next month’s regional elections and the looming 2017 presidential contest. Former president and probable future candidate Nicolas Sarkozy called for more “drastic security measures.” “The war that we lead must be total,” he said, recommending, among other things, house arrest and electronic bracelets for suspected radicals, expulsion of hate-spouting imams and the closing of their mosques. That was in line with the hardnosed approach of Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National, who called for permanent border controls in place of the open-door Shengen agreement, “rearmament,” and a realignment of France’s diplomacy. “France must choose between its friends and its enemies,” she said. “Its enemies are those countries who maintain friendly relations with radical islamism.” Le Pen, a leading presidential contender according to the polls, seemed poised to benefit from the heightened fears of terrorism and insecurity, two of her main themes.
The resort to stringent security measures caused some observers, with an eye to the U.S. Patriot Act, to worry that overreaction to the attacks may in fact result in a curtailment of French liberties and a more intrusive, repressive state. “Only a love of freedom permits us to remain free,” Laurent Joffrin editorialized in the left-leaning daily Libération. “To suppress liberties and propose laws of exception is already a surrender.”
In Paris on Sunday, under blue skies, small groups gathered around makeshift shrines of candles and flowers on the Place de la République, in front of the barricaded Bataclan, and on the sidewalks near the cafes whose shattered glass windows still bore witness to the horror. Some prayed, some cried, some joined hands and sang La Vie en Rose. Two men and a woman held signs offering free hugs. Within days, life would slowly return to normal as theaters, museums and shops reopened and people went about their business. No one knows if or when the next attack will come. But it will be a long time before Parisians will be able to enjoy a drink at a sidewalk café, shop at a crowded market, or attend a concert without thinking of the events of Friday the 13th of November.