Another catch up post, this time a piece for The Times in the wake of the horrible attack in Nice. Not sure the article totally corresponds with the piece, but the fundamental point about France facing a very acute problem definitely holds unfortunately.
From the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January last year, the attack on Paris last November and Thursday’s outrage in Nice, it is clear that France is the western focus for Islamist terrorists.
The reasons lie in a unique combination of practical and historical factors. Back in the 1990s, the nascent terrorist threat to Europe came from north Africa, where France had been the big colonial power and a focus for hatred.
Algerian groups launched a series of attacks in France, and put in place networks that were nurtured on the jihadist battlefields of the Balkans war. These networks developed links with London, through preachers and terrorists who would enter the UK, and even with north America in the shape of, for example, Ahmed Ressam, who was arrested trying to cross the border from Canada into the US to bomb Los Angeles airport on New Year’s Eve 1999.
However, during the 2000s the focus shifted, with the UK bearing the brunt of attacks directed by al-Qaeda against the West, with the US often proving too difficult for terrorist networks to penetrate.
Today, France is once again at the centre of the threat. It has always been regarded by Islamists as one of the old imperial powers at the heart of the western alliance against them. But what’s changed is that the terror threat comes increasingly from the Arab Levant, a part of the world encompassing the eastern Mediterranean and north Africa that France has stronger links with than any other European power.
Previously, the heart of global jihadism was in south Asia, a region that Britain had a greater connection to. Nowadays, both France and Britain have jihadists going to fight in Syria and Iraq.
France does, however, have noticeably more.
There are practical issues that have exposed France to a greater threat. Its open borders with fellow EU nations, through the Schengen free movement area, give it the benefits of free trade, but make it harder to secure against terrorism.
With an almost uncontrolled flow of people and weapons, French authorities are dealing with a threat that is much more heavily armed than anything in the UK. In an echo of the British experience after the 7/7 attacks, French MPs recently lambasted the performance of their intelligence agencies and the institutional rivalries that prevent them from collaborating effectively.
Since the intelligence failures of 7/7, Britain has invested huge sums in personnel and technology. France needs to learn the same lesson to ensure that its squabbling agencies focus on the job in hand. We should be careful not to blame the attacks in France on the country’s large Muslim population. It’s clear that Muslims in France feel alienated, but so do Muslims in many other countries in Europe that are much less tolerant of religious and ethnic minorities. Before some French politicians seek to blame the attacks on their fellow citizens, they should realise that fomenting civil strife is what these atrocities are designed to do.
France may be in the crosshairs of Islamist terrorism, but once it develops a response, the scourge will seek new countries in which to carry out attacks.
Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute