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French Justice Minister Acknowledges Terrorism’s Power to Mobilize

In the Wake Of the "Charlie Hebdo" Attacks, France Has Seen an Uptick In Anti-Terror Investigations

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Between the massacre at Charlie Hebdo and the killings of Jewish shoppers at a kosher grocery store, it would be easy to conclude that today’s crop of radical jihadists are simply madmen willing to commit wanton acts of violence against those they consider infidels. The French government, still reeling from those attacks, has a very different view: The terrorists responsible for the bloodshed know exactly what they’re aiming to do, and they’re quite good at it.

“It is a terrorism that is very innovative, because it shows that it can mobilize people,” French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira said in an interview Monday. “This is why the response to this cannot only be surveillance or security.”

Even before the three days of violence in Paris last month that left 17 people dead, France already had ratcheted up its spying powers. Since last April, for example, surveillance on French telephone and Internet networks blocked would-be jihadis from as many as 15 terror networks from heading abroad. Taubira said.

But that didn’t stop the attacks, which were carried out by two men born and radicalized in France. In the last six weeks alone, terror investigations rose from 800 to 1,000 active cases. Of these open investigations, a quarter involve suspects that are recent converts to what Taubira described as “Islamic terrorism.”

“When you act [after] terrorists act, it is motivated by the feeling of belonging to an army that is fighting a war of civilization,” said Taubira, in Washington for meetings with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Organization of American States Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza.

With Western fighters streaming into Syria, security officials in France and across Europe are struggling to keep track of the many men returning from that battlefield to their home countries. An estimated 800 individuals have left France to join militants in Iraq and Syria, Taubira said. Of those, about 200 have since returned to France and 73 were killed on the battlefield.

The rest, presumably, remain in Iraq and Syria, where the Islamic State extremist group is seeking to carve out a caliphate.

In propaganda videos, Islamic State fighters have repeatedly urged Muslims living in the West to rise up and carry out terrorist attacks at home. It is unclear what the three men who attacked the offices Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket had with militants abroad, but they at the very least felt a kinship with international jihadist movement. One of the Charlie Hebdo gunmen is reported to have travelled to Yemen for meetings and training with the local al Qaeda branch, and the supermarket gunman pledged allegiance before his death to the Islamic State.

At the very least, they showed how deeply they could strike at the French state.

Photo credit: Nicholas Kamm/Getty 

Lara Jakes is the deputy managing editor of news for Foreign Policy magazine and a former war correspondent, Baghdad bureau chief and award-winning senior national security and diplomatic writer for The Associated Press. She's a 1995 graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and lives in Alexandria, Va., with her husband. @larajakesFP

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