France’s War Against the Islamic State Is Not in Syria
François Hollande has taken France to war against Islamist enemies abroad. He should use those resources closer to home.
This has been a summer of discontent in Western Europe, and it’s taking its toll on lives, morale, and the public mood. Practically every other day brings fresh reports of a new attack conducted either by disturbed young men, or lone wolves heeding the Islamic State’s call to strike the crusaders, or both. The weapons are getting increasingly banal, from rented trucks to kitchen knives, and most Frenchmen and women would, understandably, rather not work themselves up into another heightened state of alarm with each new strike. This is the new normal, as French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has warned, and the choices are stark: Hold it together, or freak out and lose the plot.
Yet the attack this week on a church in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, a working-class suburb of Rouen in the Normandy region, feels different. Sectarian strife is what the Islamic State is after, and, in terms of symbolism, the iconography of the July 26 attack could not have been blunter. A frail, octogenarian priest having his throat slit on an altar during the morning Mass before a tiny congregation of three Roman Catholic nuns and two elderly parishioners in a Norman backwater seems like a scene from a gory medieval painting. That’s exactly the sort of imagery the Islamic State thrives on, and there it was — unfolding not in a self-declared Middle Eastern caliphate, but in a part of Europe that has surely closed the chapter on that dark past and left it for the museums.
The jihadis are not likely to get the all-out civil war they want, but the situation could get pretty grim if French politicians and the public don’t get their next few moves right. A day after the church attack, President François Hollande seemed to be doing the right thing when he met with the country’s top religious leaders, who joined together to issue a call for unity. The rector of the main Paris mosque, Dalil Boubakeur, expressed his “deep grief” at the attack, which he described as a “blasphemous sacrilege that goes against all the teachings of our religion.” He also called for tighter security, better training of clerics, and reforms for French Muslim institutions.
He’s right, of course. But while we’re at it, there are plenty of other reforms and policy rethinks that France needs to put high on the agenda. At the top of the list should be figuring out how the country can end its “war” against the Islamic State and its so-called caliphate.
France, more than any other Western nation, has proved particularly vulnerable to the new nihilistic brand of jihadism. This isn’t just a feeling — this is established fact: When William McCants and Christopher Meserole published their initial research findings in Foreign Affairs this year that showed France, and Francophone countries, to be at the highest risk for radicalization and jihadi attacks, it kicked up a storm in wonk circles. But we don’t have to get into that here. The figures speak for themselves: Nine attacks — including the Charlie Hebdo assault, the Nov. 13 attack in Paris, and the Nice truck attack — have torn into France in the past 18 months, and the famously resilient French people, who banded together in January 2015, are starting to despair.
Figuring out why France tops the charts in jihadi attacks and what’s to be done about it requires expertise (of which the French have plenty) and the flexibility to adopt and implement policy rethinks (which they woefully lack). Here’s a good place to start: The one argument the Islamic State propaganda machine puts out time and again when exhorting supporters to target France is Paris’s muscular military interventions in Muslim lands.
France is engaged in military operations across the Sahel and North Africa, as well as with the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. After every jihadi attack, Hollande vows more fire and brimstone against the barbaric Islamic State: Following the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, which killed 130 people, French airstrikes pounded the jihadi group’s de facto capital of Raqqa in Syria. Following the Nice attack, Hollande kept up the war chant in his televised address to the nation: “Nothing will make us yield in our will to fight terrorism. We will further strengthen our actions in Iraq and in Syria.” How those airstrikes would do anything at all about a violently disturbed Tunisian man with no links to the jihadi group ploughing a rented truck through a crowd was anyone’s guess. On Tuesday, Hollande was at it again when he pledged to win the “war” by all means.
The mantra has been repeated ad nauseam by the French political class with little or no debate on where this is leading the country. Nearly two years after France joined the coalition against the Islamic State, the situation on the ground in Syria and Iraq has changed vastly. The war in the Middle East has morphed into a fight to the finish between Sunnis and Shiites. In Syria, France and the so-called West are stuck on the side represented by Saudi Arabia, a monarchy committed to the Salafi movement, which, by its very nature, is reactionary, intolerant, racist, discriminatory, misogynistic, homophobic … the list goes on. How and why we are stuck on this side of the conflict in Syria and what possible plan we have to fill in the power gap that would be created by Bashar al-Assad’s long-demanded departure is anyone’s guess. In Iraq, however, we’re on the other side of this divide, and the situation is no more promising: The United States is barely managing to keep the Shiite militias from skinning their Sunni brethren, and we’re looking at another sectarian mess once the United States gets tired of trying to hold that country together. For France to increase the security risk at home by continuing to fight in distant lands without an end plan in sight is senseless at this point.
But every leader loves a good war after a deadly terrorist attack, and French politicians are no exception. None of the leaders of France’s major political parties have voiced any opposition to the military operations in Iraq and Syria. Doing so is not a good recipe for winning elections, especially when the public is so rattled by the latest threat; it overwhelmingly believes “something needs to be done,” and that something includes military operations in yet another theater of war.
Since Islamic State-related terrorism first reared its ugly head in France back in 2014, politicians and experts have stressed that the country lacks the resources and security personnel to monitor suspects and keep the country safe. Two years later, the lack of resources, otherwise known as the “this-is-too-big-to-handle” argument, is still being trotted out in the wake of new assaults. France’s anti-radicalization efforts have gone nowhere. Programs start and fold months later without any explanation. The fever of wayward youth signing up for an instant jihad has reached unprecedented proportions, and the French response continues to be all over the place. Meanwhile, time, energy, and resources are being spent on foreign military operations.
It came as a surprise to no one that Valls was loudly booed during a commemoration for the victims of the attack in Nice. The French people have had enough of security lapses. The political right, a rising force across France and the rest of Europe, is feeding off every attack, and Hollande’s popularity ratings are reaching record lows a year before the 2017 presidential elections.
If there are any security lessons to be learned from the Normandy church attack, they are not new. Once again, one of the attackers — a mere teenager named Adel Kermiche — was on the “S” watch list after trying, and failing, to get to Syria twice. He’d been charged with conspiracy to commit a crime with a terrorist organization and detained until March. He was released on bail pending trial, put under house arrest, and fitted with an electronic surveillance device that allowed him to leave his house on weekdays between 8 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. The attack happened at 9:25 a.m. during the morning Mass Tuesday. But since it was in Kermiche’s hometown of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, the bracelet didn’t trigger an alert. In other words, the attacker was wearing a surveillance bracelet as he slit the throat of Jacques Hamel, an elderly priest. This obviously means the terms of a house arrest for terrorism suspects need to be tightened. It also means security needs to be tightened at churches — as it is at Jewish and Muslim places of worship. The debate these days is, ostensibly, whether the French want Israeli-style security measures, but it’s already too late for that discussion. The public has made its opinion clear, demanding tighter security time and again, and they’re willing to live with a beefed-up security presence at public places.
What is not helpful are measures of the sort taken on Wednesday by leading French daily Le Monde, along with French TV station BFM, which both made an editorial decision not to publish photographs of the attackers “to avoid possible posthumous glorification.” A number of other news organizations have followed suit, contemplating policy changes such as identifying jihadis only by their initials or first names. The media, of course, has a responsibility, especially in these jittery times. But not publishing photographs of jihadi attackers is hardly going to calm the public or give peace a chance; what it will do is make it that much harder for French society at large to understand the threat it is facing.
French politicians love to use the term “la guerre,” or “the war,” to talk about the war against terrorism. What they’ve never seemed to absorb is that this is actually a war against themselves. All the major jihadi attacks in France over the past 18 months have been conducted by French nationals or residents. Now, la guerre will be conducted by unseen Frenchmen whose poorly understood lives were lived a world apart from the elites, in a society that offers them little mobility. And with every attack, they will die as faceless, nameless monsters, thereby making it that much more difficult for the public to understand that the menace is in their midst and the only way to truly thwart this threat is by killing the appeal of jihadism at its roots. As for posthumous glorification, that is being done very well in the jihadisphere. Wannabe jihadis aren’t exactly looking to the likes of Le Monde for the post-martyrdom feting.
As for that matter of tackling the root of the problem, once again, the case of the church attacker points to lessons we should have learned years ago. Kermiche’s family alerted French authorities to his radicalization. His mother, a teacher, told the Swiss French-language daily Tribune de Genève that the Charlie Hebdo attacks of January 2015 “acted as a detonator” on the teen. “He said we could not practice our religion in peace in France,” she said. “He was speaking with words that did not belong to him. He was bewitched, like he was in a cult.” Shortly after the family confronted the boy over a secret Facebook account he used to contact other radicalized youth, Kermiche made his first attempt to go to Syria.
Mark that as another French family pleading for help as their youngster signed up for a suicidal cause. The state needs to do more to help these families and tackle the problem at home. And that will be that much harder to do while it is making itself an easy target by waging wars in distant lands, with no end in sight.
Photo credit: Philippe Wojazer/AFP/Getty Images