Saturday 17 August 2019

'ISIS want a civil war'

Mary fitzgerald reports from Paris on the mood after the worst attacks in France since World War II. She warns that a surge in anti-Muslim sentiment could play into the hands of the terrorists, and talks to a former ISIS captive who saw the jihadists up close

Climate of fear: Armed police patrol at Place de la Republique in Paris in the wake of last week's attacks.
Climate of fear: Armed police patrol at Place de la Republique in Paris in the wake of last week's attacks.

Few people have experienced the brutality of ISIS up close and lived to tell the tale as Nicolas Henin has done. The French journalist was held hostage by ISIS for 10 months before being released, along with a number of compatriots, in April last year. Several of his fellow hostages, including American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, were later killed by their captors, their beheadings filmed in what has now become an all too familiar part of ISIS propaganda. One of Henin's jailers was the infamous Mohammed Emwazi, known as Jihadi John, believed to have been killed in a recent US drone strike in Syria.

Last Friday week, ISIS came to Paris, the city Henin grew up in and still calls home. Targeting Parisians who were kicking off their weekend attending a France-Germany game at a football stadium, or watching a Californian heavy metal band perform, or eating at a restaurant, the ISIS militants killed 129 people in coordinated attacks. At least 350 people were also wounded, with scores of people still critically injured. France has been reeling since.

Henin, who recently published a book on ISIS titled Jihad Academy, has spent the past week cautioning his compatriots against falling into a trap set by what he describes as "street kids drunk on ideology and power" who are convinced of an apocalyptic confrontation between Muslims and others.

"With their news and social media interest, they will be noting everything that follows their murderous assault on Paris, and my guess is that right now the chant among them will be 'We are winning'. They will be heartened by every sign of overreaction, of division, of fear, of racism, of xenophobia," he wrote.

"Central to their world view is the belief that communities cannot live together with Muslims, and every day their antennae will be tuned towards finding supporting evidence. The pictures from Germany of people welcoming migrants will have been particularly troubling to them. Cohesion, tolerance - it is not what they want to see."

As the contours of the attacks on Paris become clearer and French security services continue to pursue those believed to have orchestrated them, one thing is certain: their objective was to plant discord in an already brittle society and to provoke a retaliatory response that would bolster ISIS's narrative of persecution.

France was already trying to deal with the fallout from a series of attacks in the capital earlier this year when militants killed 17 people in raids on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket. In the immediate aftermath of those attacks, there were mass public rallies across France and appeals for solidarity and unity.

But the public mood in the months since had taken on a darker tone. In France's second city, Marseille, where I live, members of the far-right National Front have tried to exploit the tragedy to whip up anti-Muslim feeling in a city which is home to one of the country's largest Muslim populations.

Despite all the calls for people not to conflate the actions of a small band of extremist murderers with Islam more generally, a slight but unmistakable "us versus them" sentiment began creeping into public discourse in France.

It was noticeable that no grand public appeals for solidarity have followed the attacks of last week. There have been no large demonstrations, only the sense of a nation knocked sideways. Newspaper headlines reflected what appeared to be a hardening of the public mood. "This time, it is war," was a common theme.

Many French Muslims - estimated, at around five million strong, to be Europe's largest Muslim population - are fearful as the National Front and its supporters see opportunity. In the weeks following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, France's National Observatory Against Islamophobia saw a 281pc increase in anti-Muslim incidents compared to the previous year.

Last weekend a Moroccan was beaten up during an anti-immigration rally by extreme-right youths in Brittany. Mosques have been vandalised in Paris and other parts of the country. Jean-Pierre Filiu, an expert on the Middle East and Islam, told France-Inter radio that what ISIS wanted "is that today in Paris and in France, Muslims are killed in reprisal. They want a civil war in France".

Several Muslims died in the attacks of last Friday week, among them a violinist, an architect, a receptionist and a shop assistant. Another pulled two injured women to safety as the street outside the restaurant he worked in was raked in gunfire.

A video condemning the attacks, which was produced by a group of French Muslim students, has been shared on social media.

"They invoke the Quran, and quote its verses," the video voiceover intones as the students hold signs bearing the hashtag #NousSommesUnis ('We are united'). "But shedding the blood of an innocent has no justification, not in Islam or anywhere." The voiceover continues: "They wanted France to be weak. They made our French hearts strong."

Khadija, a Muslim student who lives in Paris, is worried about a spike in anti-Muslim feeling as France tries to come to terms with what happened this month.

"The worst thing that could happen is that people think these killers represent something more than their twisted ideology," she says. "ISIS has killed more Muslims than non-Muslims in places like Syria and Iraq. Just days before the Paris attacks they killed more than 40 people in Beirut. They are everyone's enemy and we need to fight them together, not allow them to divide us. That is exactly what they want to see."

All five identified perpetrators of the attacks in Paris are EU citizens. They are among the thousands of Europeans who have joined the ranks of ISIS, many of whom have blooded themselves in Syria and Iraq before returning home. Most of the attackers were French.

"We know, and it is cruel to say it, that on Friday it was French who killed other French," President François Hollande told a rare joint emergency session of parliament last Monday. "There are, living on our soil, individuals who from delinquency go on to radicalisation and then to terrorist criminality."

Such rhetoric, with its undertones of "the enemy within", makes many in France uneasy, seeing in it soft echoes of the language used by the far-right, which hopes to make gains in forthcoming regional elections.

Officials have been calling for closer monitoring of mosques, extending the state of emergency and imposing restrictions on the 10,000 or more people classified as potential threats to state security. With distrust, and sometimes even hostility, growing, France finds itself pulled in different directions.

"There has been a definite hardening on all levels. You can hear it, you can feel it," says Jean-Louis, a clerical worker in Paris. "But the problem is this will feed the National Front. In my view the National Front and the extremists need each other to reinforce their own message. We must resist this."

Nicolas Henin, who opposed the French bombardment of locations in Syria associated with ISIS, including the town of Raqqa, that followed the Paris attacks, argues that while revenge was perhaps inevitable, what is needed is deliberation.

"My fear is that this reaction will make a bad situation worse," he says. "There is much we can achieve in the aftermath of this atrocity, and the key is strong hearts and resilience, for that is what they fear. I know them: bombing they expect. What they fear is unity."

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