Friday 9 December 2016

Paris terror attacks: Why has France been targeted again?

The Paris attacks have outraged the world. But, sadly, they will not have surprised the French authorities

Harriet Alexander

Published 14/11/2015 | 21:42

French president Francois Hollande speaks in Paris on November 14, 2015, following a series of coordinated attacks in and around Paris late Friday which left more than 120 people dead. Hollande on Saturday blamed the Islamic State group for the attacks in Paris that left at least 128 dead, calling them an
French president Francois Hollande speaks in Paris on November 14, 2015, following a series of coordinated attacks in and around Paris late Friday which left more than 120 people dead. Hollande on Saturday blamed the Islamic State group for the attacks in Paris that left at least 128 dead, calling them an "act of war". AFP PHOTO / POOL / STEPHANE DE SAKUTINSTEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty Images

Every Western capital knows that Islamist extremists would love to strike a blow at its heart. But few are so tantalising a target as Paris. Why?

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The short answer is that France fights jihadists worldwide; has one of the largest Muslim populations in Europe – and arguably the most divided society.

Francois Hollande was at the football friendly between France and Germany at the Stade de France stadium. (AP)
Francois Hollande was at the football friendly between France and Germany at the Stade de France stadium. (AP)
TOPSHOTS A person watches TV in Rennes as French president Francois Hollande adresses the nation on November 13, 2015 after a series of gun attacks occurred across Paris as well as explosions outside the national stadium where France was hosting Germany. Francois Hollande declared a state of emergency and closed borders . AFP PHOTO / DAMIEN MEYERDAMIEN MEYER/AFP/Getty Images
TOPSHOTS A handout picture taken and released on November 13, 2015 by the Presidence of the Republique shows French President Francois Hollande in the security control room at the Stade de France stadium in Saint-Denis, near Paris, on November 13, 2015, as he learns about several attacks in Paris. A number of people were killed and others injured in a series of gun attacks across Paris on Friday, as well as explosions outside the national stadium where France was hosting Germany. RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / PRESIDENCE DE LA REPUBLIQUE / CHRISTELLE ALIX " - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTSCHRISTELLE ALIX/AFP/Getty Images

It also has a steady stream of guns pouring in from across continental Europe's porous borders. It is a potent, explosive mix – as shown by the Charlie Hebdo attacks of January, and now the Paris shootings.

"This is for Syria," one of the Paris attackers reportedly said. But he could have said it was for Mali, or Libya, or Iraq.

Indeed, France takes pride in its proactive stance against Islamists worldwide, especially in the face of what is frequently seen as British and American retreat. Over 10,000 French troops are currently deployed abroad – over 3,000 in Western Africa, 2,000 in Central, and 3,200 in Iraq.

French intervention in Mali, against al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, in 2013 was seen as pivotal in the weakening of the jihadi group. A fortnight ago a leader of an AQIM affiliate urged his followers to attack France in retaliation for their presence in the region.

A French soldier patrols at Gare Saint Lazare train station in Paris, Saturday, Nov. 15, 2015. French President Francois Hollande vowed to attack Islamic State without mercy as the jihadist group admitted responsibility Saturday for orchestrating the deadliest attacks inflicted on France since World War II. (AP Photo/Kamil Zihnioglu)
A French soldier patrols at Gare Saint Lazare train station in Paris, Saturday, Nov. 15, 2015. French President Francois Hollande vowed to attack Islamic State without mercy as the jihadist group admitted responsibility Saturday for orchestrating the deadliest attacks inflicted on France since World War II. (AP Photo/Kamil Zihnioglu)

And last week President Francois Hollande announced that France will deploy an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf to assist the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq the Levant (Isil), setting him on a collision course with the Islamist leaders.

A key problem, however, is internal.

Spectators invade the pitch of the Stade de France stadium after the friendly match between France and Germany in Saint Denis, outside Paris (AP)
Spectators invade the pitch of the Stade de France stadium after the friendly match between France and Germany in Saint Denis, outside Paris (AP)
French president Francois Hollande addresses the nation after the attacks occurred across Paris. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

The feelings of isolation and exclusion can be overwhelming, with few high profile Muslim role models in business or politics. France's stridently secular state, the banning of the burka and the power of the Front National have not helped to ease tensions between communities.

Mohamed Merah, the Toulouse shooter of 2012, grew up in a tough banlieu, began as a small-time delinquent, was sent to prison, and emerged a hardened jihadi with "meaning" in life.

Mehdi Nemouche, author of the May 2014 murder of four people in Brussels, was also radicalised in prison – travelling to Syria when he was freed and then coming back to attack the Jewish museum.

Chérif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly both followed a similar trajectory of lack of opportunity, descent into criminality, prison and radicalisation.

Inside France's prisons, 70 per cent of the inmates are estimated to be Muslims – by law, France cannot ask a person to state their religion, so official data is unavailable. In England and Wales, by comparison, Muslims account for 14 per cent of the prison population, according to Home Office statistics, and five per cent of the population nationwide.

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks The Telegraph reported how France was struggling with radicalisation inside its prisons, and unlike Britain had very few Imams to enter the cells, and limited de-radicalisation programmes. In April Rachida Dati, the former justice minister and now a special rapporteur on radicalisation, told this paper that France was not doing enough to fight the power of Islamist radicals behind bars.

And another constant source of concern for the French authorities is the ease with which weapons can be trafficked into France.

Belgium has long struggled with illegal arms; it is believed the Charlie Hebdo attackers sourced their weapons there. The Balkans are also favoured shopping destinations; the years of conflict there during the Balkan Wars have left the region awash with cheap, nondescript weapons.

The result is a powder keg atmosphere.

We do not yet know who carried out the horrendous Paris attacks, and why. But, sadly, it is something that the French authorities knew could happen at any time.

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