On Friday, November 13, >France faced its 26/11 moment . During three hours of indiscriminate killings that have already claimed 129 lives, the city of lights was shrouded in the darkness of terror. Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility, threatening more such attacks. President Francois Hollande responded by calling it ‘an act of war’ and >has vowed to respond ‘without mercy’ . A state of emergency has been declared and movement across French borders curtailed.
There has been an outpouring of sympathy across the world, reflected in the ‘We are all Parisiens’ vigils. >Monuments across the world were lit up in the French colours . Leaders at the G-20 summit in Turkey observed a minute of solemn silence and pledged (once again) to strengthen and coordinate their efforts to combat terrorism.
Eleven years ago, the world had responded in similar vein in March 2004, when a series of simultaneous bomb blasts on four commuter trains in Madrid killed 191 innocent people. Some key suspects died in an explosion in three weeks later as the police closed in and 21 persons were convicted in the trials that followed. Just a year later, the July 2005 suicide attacks in London on three underground train lines and a bus that led to 56 casualties made the world empathise with the Londoners. Yet, despite statements and declarations, coordinated action has been lacking.
Two earlier warnings for Paris In the case of Paris, there have been not one but two warnings in recent years. In January this year, two brothers, Cherif and Said Kouachi, had carried out a brazen attack on the Paris offices of a well-known satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo , >killing a dozen persons , including the editor. The provocation was the cartoons of the Prophet.
Even as the manhunt proceeded, an accomplice, Amedy Coulibaly, held up a Jewish grocery store in another part of town. Eventually, all the three were killed. AQIY (Al Qaeda in Yemen) claimed responsibility for the attacks. Links to Brussels-based networks that had played a role in the acquisition of the weaponry were uncovered during the subsequent investigation.
In March 2012, Mohamed Merah >killed French soldiers and Jewish children in three separate incidents in Toulouse and Montauban over a week-long period before the police finally caught up with him and killed him in a shootout. Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility. Merah had been radicalised during his visits to Pakistan and Afghanistan. It was later revealed that the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) had been in touch with him about targeting the Indian Embassy and the Air India office in Paris. It was called a ‘lone wolf attack’ which in hindsight looks like an underestimation of the problem that France faces.
Among the European countries, France has a relatively high immigrant population, drawn largely from its ex-colonies in the Maghreb and Africa. Though religion is not included in the census exercise, it is estimated that the number of Muslims in France would be nearly six million, close to 10 per cent of the overall population.
Alienation of Muslims Unlike the first generation migrants who focussed single-mindedly on economic betterment, the second generation has been more susceptible to radicalisation, particularly after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Though France opposed the invasion, in the ensuing polarisation between the West and Islam, France was seen to be firmly in the Western camp.
Muscular interventionist policies pursued by Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Mr. Hollande in Libya, Mali and now Syria have also contributed to the alienation of the Muslim youth. Following the 2008 economic crisis, general unemployment in France has risen to 10 per cent but among the Muslims, the unemployment rates are nearly twice that. Given the concentration of Muslim communities in and around certain urban agglomerations (like Paris, Marseilles and Toulouse), networks of mosques and Internet cafes have linked up with jihadi networks in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq and now Syria. Like in Merah’s case, radicalisation of the Kouachi brothers had also taken place during visits to these countries. Today, more than a thousand French nationals are reported to have gone to Syria as IS recruits, the largest number from any European country, matched perhaps only by the U.K.
France has been proud of its rather strict separation of the Church and the State, first legalised in 1905 and then enshrined in its subsequent Constitutions, as the concept of laicite or secularism. This was further strengthened by the 2004 law which prohibited the ostentatious display of religious symbols in public institutions.
The law alienated sections of the Muslim population as it prohibits the wearing of the hijab which was becoming increasingly visible in French cities, causing concern. However, to be fair, the law was equally applicable to Catholics wearing a large cross, Jews wearing a yarmulke (Jewish skull cap) and Sikh boys wearing a turban in publicly-funded institutions.
The latter was an issue repeteadly taken up by the small Sikh community in France. The issue was also raised by former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh during his visits to France. While the French were sympathetic, they remained staunch defenders of their tradition of laicite .
As evidence of radicalisation grew, new laws were introduced to provide additional powers to the security agencies to monitor and track individuals and organisations engaged with external radical entities even if no criminal act had been committed on French territory. High-profile initiatives have been taken at the level of Prime Minister Manuel Valls to establish dialogue with leading Muslim community leaders and clerics.
Along with laicite , the French have also taken pride in their policy of ‘assimilation’ for integrating the immigrant community. Distinct from the ‘salad bowl’ approach adopted by Anglophone societies, assimilation was aimed at integration of outsiders into the French way of life — the croissant and coffee; the pain au chocolat (chocolate bread) for the children on the weekend; the French language and civilisation; in short la vie francaise .
The idea was that secularism would ensure that the non-Catholic migrant kept his or her faith restricted to the privacy of the home but, in public, felt and behaved like a Frenchman/Frenchwoman and gradually began to take pride in the French way of life. Up till the end of the twentieth century, the French model was widely perceived to be successful and many countries with migrant populations were drawn to it. What also helped was that France had one of the most generous social welfare systems in the West.
Failure of 20th century measures Yet, all these traditional policy measures have not prevented an alienation of large sections of the population, with its attendant risks of radicalisation. One reason is that these policies operated within national boundaries and failed to take into account the appeal of the ideology of global jihad. Western intervention in traditional societies has led to the dismantling of the state rather than making it more accountable. Al-Qaeda was incubated in the jihad sponsored by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in the lawless Af-Pak region.
The IS was born in Iraq following the disastrous U.S.-led intervention and has morphed into a Caliphate, aided by Western interventions in Syria and elsewhere, together with the virus of sectarianism within Islam introduced by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Lacking the necessary political space and resources, moderate Muslim leadership has often remained a helpless spectator to this hijacking of Islam. Military action in Syria and Iraq by itself cannot decimate the IS just as drone strikes have not eliminated Al-Qaeda.
Another key reason for the failure is that the people in the West and the international community >did not feel the same solidarity when Beirut or Ankara or even Mumbai were subjected to terrorist attacks , though the Mumbai attacks have now become the preferred model adopted by the terrorists. In fact, intelligence agencies in many of these countries had concluded after Mumbai that a simultaneous attack on multiple targets with suicide bombers and gunmen in crowded urban centres was going to be the biggest threat that they needed to prepare against. Yet, effective international coordination has been missing, though, for over a decade, world leaders have pledged to deal with this ‘global threat’ at every summit gathering.
We can continue to seek a primary cause —Western interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the dubious Arab Springs, the anti-Soviet jihad, the seizing of the Grand Mosque in Makkah in 1979, the Iranian Revolution or the Sykes-Picot pact of 1915. But the fact is that history knows no beginnings; policies create beginnings and policies are made by political leaders. A simple definition of ‘terrorism’ would be a good place to start.
( Rakesh Sood, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation till May 2014, is a former Ambassador to France. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. )