France’s Real Problems Are Getting Lost in the Fog of War
Why bombing Raqqa won’t fix the rot in Paris.
As gunshots broke out and suicide vests exploded in and around the French capital, the signs of an Islamic State attack were as blaring as the sirens on police cars screeching across Paris through that long, dark night. The attacks — simultaneous, sophisticated, and multipronged — on Nov. 13 bore all the hallmarks of the self-proclaimed caliphate’s murderous ideology. But until it was officially claimed and blamed, we were still in the realm of conjecture.
As things happened — and things happen very fast these days — we didn’t have to wait for long.
The very next morning, as sleepy Parisians were barely surfacing after a harrowing night, French President François Hollande made a televised address to the nation. Looking less shaken than he did the night before, Hollande wasted no time dropping the D-word: Daesh, the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. Friday’s attacks, Hollande wasted no time declaring, “was an act of terror committed by the terrorist army of Daesh.”
Barely an hour later, the Islamic State’s official claim of responsibility came in a statement issued in Arabic and perfect French. Bearing the appropriate jihadi media insignias, the communiqué featured the usual bluster about crusader France, capital of abomination and depravity. But then it cut to the core. “Eight brothers wearing suicide vests and carrying assault rifles” conducted a “blessed attack” on France because it was “guilty of striking Muslims in the caliphate with their aircraft.”
And with that, France — and the rest of the crusading Christian world — crossed a major milestone on the global jihadi highway to security hell.
The Nov. 13 attacks, which killed 129 people, were the first suicide bombings on French soil — this in a country that’s no stranger to Islamist violence dating back to the 1990s Algerian “dirty war” between Islamist militants and Algerian security forces. France has already experienced a blowback from the Syrian conflict, including the Jan. 7-9 terrorism spree that is now simply called “the Charlie Hebdo attacks.” But those were lone-wolf attacks or plots conducted with a nod to, but no sanction from, the so-called caliphate. The Paris attacks of last Friday constitute the first successful terrorism plot on Western European soil to be “officially” claimed by the Islamic State.
In the old days, when al Qaeda was the only global jihadi game in town, we used the term “central command” or “core” to refer to the network’s Afghanistan-Pakistan nerve center. It’s time to revive that term for the Islamic State — whether it’s Raqqa, the de facto capital; a roving bunch of elites around the self-declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; or some nasty former-Baathist mastermind — it doesn’t matter. It was central command that sanctioned and claimed the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, the worst violence on French soil since World War II.
In other words, the plot, involving three teams targeting multiple venues, got the green light from the Islamic State’s central command. Most likely, the eight attackers didn’t get operational instructions from the leaders in the Syria-Iraq badlands. Nobody would risk that in these surveillance-mad days. The investigation into the attacks is bound to reveal details of those linkages, including the modus operandi of alleged mastermind Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian national believed to be currently in Syria and a distressingly familiar figure in French counterterrorism circles.
Two weeks ago, the Islamic State crossed another milestone on the highway to security hell when it claimed its first aviation attack with the downing of Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 in Egypt’s Sinai. The Islamic State’s claim for that attack was particularly galling: “We, with the help of God, have brought down the airplane,” said an Islamic State representative in deadpan Arabic in an audio statement. “Have you researched and analyzed the black box? We have brought it down no matter what you do. We will reveal how we did it when we want,” the messenger taunted.
In less than a month, the Islamic State has claimed two new, sophisticated attacks, upping the terrorism ante and proving its reach and power on the global jihadi stage. This, of course, is in addition to a series of attacks in a number of neighboring and/or Arab countries, from Tunisia to Turkey — which we tend to overlook if no British tourists or other Western nationals are trapped in the melee.
For the past two years, as the upstart jihadi group was sweeping through the Syria-Iraq desert, we told ourselves that the Islamic State was simply concentrating on expanding the caliphate and administering territories under its control — unlike al Qaeda, whose raison d’être appeared to be wracking havoc in infidel lands.
But the Islamic State has now moved into the second stage of caliphate-building: shaping a foreign policy of such bellicosity it would put a medieval-era caliph to shame.
How have we come to this? Well, we’re all scrambling for answers. One of the popular theories in military and defense circles is that when the enemy is endangered or facing an existential threat, it gets more dangerous — the cornered cat. Over the past decade, for instance, if you asked a senior U.S. Defense Department official why the Taliban was making gains in Afghanistan, the answer was an inevitable “because they’re losing and we’re winning.” Right.… This brand of ostrich-in-the-sand analysis typically continues until the situation on the ground gets so grim that we’re up to our necks in guano.
A similar argument is making the rounds in the wake of the Paris attacks — and it is dangerous because it threatens to color our response to Nov. 13. In a much-hailed piece in the Independent this weekend, columnist Patrick Cockburn noted that “there is a further reason why Isis may be intent on showing that it can strike anywhere in the world: for the first time in two years, a period during which Isis has created its own state in western Iraq and eastern Syria, it is being driven back by military pressure on a number of fronts.” From the Russian air force-backed Syrian army takeover of Kweiris air base west of Aleppo to the recent Kurdish victory in Sinjar, Cockburn suggests the Islamic State is cornered at home and will therefore attack abroad.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, French officials are making similar arguments. Here’s French Prime Minister Manuel Valls talking to the media over the weekend: “There is no such thing as zero risk. In January [after the Charlie Hebdo attacks], I said we’re at war and that this war will be long and difficult because we need to expect aftershocks. But we will retaliate to destroy Daesh, to destroy this terrorist army.”
Hours later, French aircraft, including 10 fighter jets, were pummeling Islamic State targets in Raqqa in a magnificent display of force by a country that has switched rapidly from “cheese-eating surrender monkey” to Rambo mode. All every well, but you have to wonder what’s left in Raqqa to bomb anyway and how many civilians they are killing instead.
In his address to a special session of Parliament on Monday, Hollande announced that France will intensify its operations against the Islamic State in Syria. In an alarming turn, the media is also banging the “war” theme. If the mood after the Charlie Hebdo attack was “all come together in solidarity,” this time it’s nothing less than la guerre.
Now this is the stuff of my worst nightmares: leaders and the media talking about war — in literal or metaphysical terms — after a terrorist attack. Nearly 15 years after that fatal “war on terror” declaration from Washington, the Paris attacks are a disastrous product of that disastrous foreign policy. Since a good fight between the cruel crusaders and Muslims does wonders to bolster jihadi ranks with new fighters, this is exactly what the Islamic State wants. This is not dissimilar from what far-right National Front party leader Marine Le Pen wants. When Caliph Baghdadi and Mme. Le Pen want the same thing, it should surprise nobody and alarm everybody.
It’s also worth noting that Hollande is facing regional elections next month. If the Socialists join the center-right and the far-right in distracting the French people with la guerre contre Daesh in Syria at the cost of tackling the real problem, we’re in serious trouble.
The problem, you see, is right here in France. It’s getting increasingly clear that the Nov. 13 attacks happened due to serious and systemic security failures. Most of the suspects named so far — men with now-established track records of petty criminals turned jihadis — were known to French security officials. The morning after Hollande solemnly declared that France’s borders were closed, one of the suspects, Salah Abdeslam, the “eighth man” and only attacker who was not killed during the Nov. 13 attacks, is believed to have crossed the border to Belgium. Even Turkey is beginning to gloat: Officials in Ankara now say they apprehended another suspect, Ismael Omar Mostefai, and notified their French counterparts twice, in December 2014 and June 2015. But they never heard back from the French.
There is this myth that pulverizing Islamic State-controlled Syria and Iraq will magically solve this problem. Well, I have news for my French hawk friends. Something always rises in its place. Kill Osama bin Laden, and Baghdadi springs up. Decapitate the Islamic State, and you may well find al Qaeda still has teeth. The blowback from the Syrian conflict would have happened in Europe regardless of whether the Islamic State still held Sinjar or whether its command centers in Raqqa were still standing. The real problem is the legions of disaffected, alienated youth with poor employment prospects and, frankly, no hope.
I’ve been saying this for over two years now, and this is the part when I start to lose people. After all, alarmist jihadi copy is so much sexier than earnest proposals to revamp deradicalization programs and reinvigorate hard-bitten neighborhoods. So, I’m going to keep this message short: Start by reviving the economy, Mr. Hollande. Then take a swipe at the pervasive elitism that plagues the country (everyone knows France isn’t a true meritocracy — nobody more so than the hundreds of thousands of disaffected young men with poor employment prospects). Then we can talk about ratcheting up a war in a distant land. Too many people have been killed; too many misguided youth have been led astray. That’s the real lesson of the Paris attacks. Let’s not let it get lost in the fog of war.
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