The day after Kurdish forces with U.S. support expelled the Islamic State from the town of Sinjar in Northern Iraq; the day after the U.S. triumphantly announced that ISIS executioner “Jihadi” John had been “evaporated” by a missile fired from a U.S. drone—yesterday, on February 13th, ISIS boasted its own deadly triumph. A force of about 7 or 8 jihadists, apparently allied to ISIS, carried out a wave of carnage and terror, virtually paralyzing the capital of France. Striking 6 different “soft” targets, they murdered at least 130 people, wounded hundreds more. Those incredibly sanguinary acts will have immediate and long-lasting consequences in France, across Europe, and in the United States itself.
A shaken but defiant President Francois Hollande has declared that ISIS’s attack was an “act of war.” It was “prepared, organized and planned” from the exterior with complicity from people inside France. Among other measures, he has called up more military, closed the borders, and announced a nationwide state of alert. France he said will be will be “pitiless in attacking the barbarians” of ISIS both abroad and at home.
But the fact is that for months now France has been on extra alert--policemen and soldiers with bulletproof vests and automatic rifles patrolling the airports, guarding Jewish schools and synagogues, checking the bags of people entering large department stores and museums. France’s security agencies have been monitoring all forms of communication. They’ve attempted to block would-be jihadists from going to Syria, tried to deal with hundreds, perhaps thousands of others--who have come back. They claimed to have thwarted some potential attacks.
One of the reasons they were bombarding Isis training camps in Syria was that they knew a plot against France was in the works. As President Hollande said today, “We know who they are, where they are coming from, who are these terrorists.”
Yet, despite all that, the ISIS terrorists managed their devastating strike.
Several results are certain: First—even though the French have now been made fully aware of the bloody consequence of their sending troops to fight jihadists in North Africa and the Middle East--France will certainly increase its military actions against the Islamic state and its allies.
Secondly, there will also be unprecedented surveillance of France’s huge Muslim community, a crackdown against anyone or anything that has a whiff of extremism. Many Muslims may be placed under preventative detention, or expelled; more radical mosques shut down, their imams silenced.
Third, there will be a further upsurge in the already soaring strength of the radical right, not only in France but across Europe. In order not to lose political ground, conservative politicians like Nicholas Sarkozy will move even further to the right.
Indeed, a public opinion poll published by Le Figaro, the day before, the horrific attacks, showed that 67% of those French queried would be in favor of a non-elected government of technocrats to solve the country’s problems. An astonishing 40% would be willing to accept a non-elected authoritarian regime. That again was the state of opinion before yesterday’s attacks.
Fourth, Many of the French had already been wavering on accepting some of the huge flood of refugees which has rolled into Europe from the Greater Middle East and Africa. Most French now will probably favor slamming the doors shut, or at least greatly limiting the intake. They will also demand that thousands of refugees already here, but not granted political asylum, be immediately deported. The same calls are being voiced across Europe. The effects on the refugees could be catastrophic.
Knowing those consequences, why would ISIS act in the stunning way that it has over the past few weeks—downing a Russian charter flight in Egypt, launching two bloody suicide attacks in Beirut two days ago; carrying out this horrific terrorist attack in Paris?
As far as the attack in Paris is concerned, the simplest answer is to wreak vengeance and sow fear, to bring fully home to the French the bloody consequences of their military interventions in far away Syria and Iraq. The idea also being to undermine French resolve, weaken their determination to continue a distant, costly struggle.
The sophistication of the attacks should not be overstated—these were all “soft targets”, the weapons used suicide belts and Ak-47s. But the few killers were able to inflict horrific carnage. They recreated for the French the fear and terror that those living in Aleppo, of Baghdad, Kabul, or Damascus, experience every day.
Still, today--the day after that attack, with calls from across the political spectrum for total war and the annihilation of ISIS, if anything, the terrorist attacks have only increased French resolve. That’s today. A few weeks from now, who knows.
But the prime goal of ISIS and its jihadist allies is to further radicalize the situation in France. They are out to provoke a wave of revulsion, fear, and hatred, to destroy the already frayed relations between France and the country’s huge Muslim community, the largest in Europe.
The Twitter feed on the #Paris attacks includes tweets by groups supposedly related to ISIS praising the terrorist killings, but they are far outnumbered by the flow of heartfelt communications from Muslims around the world condemning the attacks. “This is not my form of Islam,” they write or “Killing civilians is prohibited by the Koran.” But such expressions on social media and in public are being drowned out by the fear, fury and anger of most of the French and horrified onlookers in Europe.
The moving public processions of “solidarity” that were cobbled together after the attack on Charlie Hebdo last January, were quickly replaced by a mounting wave of distrust, mutual suspicion and outright hate.
More and more, there is the tendency to lump all Muslims together as would-be jihadists who secretly cheer on Isis and the terrorists, people ready to don suicide vests themselves at the first chance.
In would be marvelous indeed if the Muslim community in France and its leaders could somehow take more of the lead in dealing with the minority Islamic radicals within their own ranks, continue to identify them to the authorities, speak out even more forcefully against them, condemn the more radical schools. Indeed, the great majority of French Muslims have rejected radical Islam for years.
But the more Islamophobia spreads, the more the French government cracks down, the more ISIS and the other radical Muslim groups will achieve their goal. That is, to convince French Muslims that there is no way moderation will work in France, no way they will ever be accepted as full citizens in this country. The only solution is radical Islam, jihad, the way of al-Qaeda and Isis.
If that happens, than the current Islamic “Fifth column” in France could morph from a few hundred or thousand young radicals, to a much more terrifying threat.
Unfortunately, at this time of great national crisis, France has no great potential leader in the wings. No De Gaulle or Clemenceau or Churchill. Just Francois Hollande.