Has France Rediscovered the War on Terrorism?
Posted on: November/08/2016 1:45 pm by: Pierrick Le Jeune, PhD

Today, France's military is heavily involved in Syria and Iraq. Is this a sign of a new attitude towards terrorism as some may think?

In fact, since our "invention" of terrorism in 1793 (the term was coined during the Reign of Terror), France has constantly been affected by terrorist acts. This violent history has been clearly marked by two major types of terrorism: domestic terrorism (in some aspects European) dating from the 1960s through the 1980s with the Algerian war, regional separatists in Brittany and Corsica, and extreme left-wing groups; and international terrorism with attacks stemming from conflicts in the Middle East (Israeli-Palestinian, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt), the Iran-Iraq war, the emergence of the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria, and most recently Al Qaeda and ISIL.

These waves of terrorism, sometimes occurring simultaneously, perhaps coordinated, have led to a constant adaptation of France's legal and judicial arsenal, its government services in charge of the fight against terrorism (security and intelligence forces), and the emergence of European-wide and international cooperation against these phenomena.

What then justifies the impression that France "rediscovered" terrorism and/or its new global dimension?

Since September 11, 2001, the globalization of terrorism has unfortunately become a reality. Unlike the self-protective reflexes of individual European states when they were attacked in the past, these countries have come to realize that transnational terrorism is a reality. Their reaction towards the 9/11 attacks is understood now as a military threat, probably the only kind of threat that nation-states can rationally deal with, considering the magnitude of the event. France, like many other countries, subsequently participated in the coalition in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the expansion of the Al Qaeda movement, or more precisely the emergence of its branches in Iraq, North Africa, Yemen, and the Sahel, significantly continues.

France has undergone a unique experience: this mutation of terrorism saw our leaders lose points of reference that they had relied upon for decades, probably overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis. First, perhaps we should remember that since 2012 more than a dozen terrorist attacks have been carried out on French soil, as French security forces have engaged in Syria and Iraq as well as in Mali (in early 2013). France must face two fronts: a global offensive one against ISIL and affiliated Al Qaeda groups in Mali; but also a domestic defensive one against a terrorist presence in our homeland, one inspired or directed by ISIL, and conducted by young converts from all social backgrounds, radicalized, and frequently manipulated through social media. This double front was not immediately and fully understood by our officials as a single phenomenon to the extent that it previously corresponded to two parallel models, each hitherto familiar to us on their own terms and each relatively contained: international terrorism on one hand and domestic terrorism on the other hand.

The breakthrough however came when French forces intervened in Syria and Iraq on the grounds that the "brains" of terrorism raging in France were there. It came about in recognition of "recruiters" who over the years used the internet and social networks to influence a large number of young (and not so young) men, women and children who succumb to the charms of tailor-made broadcasts calling on them to do "hijra" (religiously inspired migration) to the Caliphate – and actually fight there - but if not there, to remain at home and fight by any and all means against France.

To face this new threat, officials are implementing a three-pronged strategy. The first involves more robust military intervention in overseas theaters (Syria, Iraq, Mali, etc.) in order to neutralize the "masters" of indoctrination. Perhaps it is worth noting that it is probably the most visible foreign involvement in France's fight against terrorism, similar to the US response in Afghanistan after 9/11. The second involves adapting our security posture by strengthening police and regulatory powers (by declaring a State of Emergency), increasing our intelligence resources, involving the army within the country, and adapting our legal arsenal by creating new structures such as a "Prison Intelligence" force tasked with monitoring prison radicalization. The final piece is addressing radicalization in all its various forms (by reporting on radicalized individuals, setting up centers to monitor the radicalization of young people and social support platforms for their families, and combating internet propaganda).

Obviously, the social dimension of radicalization and its attendant preventative actions seem to have reached a breaking point. Previously, domestic acts of terrorism were carried out by small groups numbering a few dozen people. Now, ISIL fighters (7,000 to 25,000 were identified as being of European origin) are returning home and radicalizing people on French territory (several thousand individuals have been reportedly radicalized) and that represents a ticking time bomb that no military action can defuse.


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