The deadly, multiple terror attacks on various targets in Paris on November 13, that has resulted in the death of 128 innocent victims and grievously injured many more, marks the second time this year that France has been attacked by terror groups. In both incidents the motivation of the perpetrators can be linked to the complex turbulence that animates the Islamic swathe from the West Asian region all the way to the Maghreb.
Paris, it may be recalled, was the site for the attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine in January this year and at the time the prime suspects were identified as two brothers – Cherif and Said Kouachi. Disaffected and alienated from the French mainstream, the two brothers were susceptible to the recruitment drive of Islamic terror groups and engaged in the mayhem they were encouraged to spew ostensibly in the name of religion.
Memories of Charlie Hebdo Echo in Attacks
At the time of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office in January 2015, the three Kalashnikov-wielding masked attackers were reported to have shouted, “Allahu Akbar – we have avenged the Prophet” and made their escape in a waiting car, in what has been described by eyewitnesses as a ‘calm and professional manner.’
The same kind of professional confidence and audacity appears to have been on display in the latest attacks on Paris. While there has been no explicit rationale that has been offered for the attack – some eyewitness reports suggest the perpetrators referred to Syria as they opened fire on hapless victims.
Secularism Versus Religious Identity in France
Why France, is a question that has been repeatedly asked in the first few hours after the dastardly attacks and some recall of the last decade is instructive. Western Europe has been the site of more than one attack and Paris apart, both London and Madrid have been scarred by the urban terrorism scourge.
France, UK and Germany are among the three nations with a sizeable Muslim population. France has the largest, both in numbers and as a percentage of the overall population – being five million which is 7. 5 percent. Over the last five decades many first generation Muslim immigrants have lived uneasily against the French dictum of assimilation, wherein they have been expected to shed their distinctive religious, linguistic and ethnic identities and become part of the mainstream.
Consequently the prevailing socio-political ecosystem in France provides a relatively more conducive catchment area for Islamist terror groups and one may conjecture that over the last year – post Hebdo – there has been a steady consolidation of local assets in Paris and its periphery, which would have allowed the carefully planned and ruthlessly executed attack of Friday, November 13.
On the political plane, over the last six months, among the EU nations, France has been in the vanguard of the attack on Syria which has now resulted in sizeable refugee exodus into Europe. Thus the fervour triggered by the Charlie Hebdo incident and now the politics over the Islamic State (IS) and Syria may be perceived to be some of the strands that have made France a preferred target. However some caution is desirable before reaching seemingly persuasive conclusions.
References to Syrian nationals among the perpetrators are being made – but these need to be confirmed and currently the French government is keeping a very tight lid on the identity of the attackers. French Presdent Hollande has stated that his government knows the identity of the attackers and that Paris will prosecute a ‘merciless war’ against the culprits.
World Under Siege
This firm resolve will assuage bruised French sensitivities but it must also be noted that in relation to the dramatic rise of IS, many red herrings have been deliberately strewn resulting in a deviously tangled situation. There is no binary division of who is whose adversary and with the more recent Russian initiative in Syria and the orientation of regional powers such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the region is enveloped in a fog of smoke signals and complex under-currents that are often at cross-purposes.
Pending further investigations and public disclosures, the way ahead is to acknowledge, at the global level, that urban terrorism is motivated by distorted religious ideologies and its opaque state-support patterns are the abiding malignancies of the current decade. Concerted collective effort is imperative if Paris is to be the last such ghastly tragedy.
(The writer is a leading expert on strategic affairs. He is currently Director, Society for Policy Studies.)