Why France Is Such An Attractive Target For Terrorists

ISIS hasn't claimed the Nice attack yet, but many see the fingerprints of terrorism

Mourners remember the victims of the Bastille Day truck attack in Nice. — REUTERS
Jul 15, 2016 at 1:25 PM ET

When the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks that killed 130 people in November, the jihadi group called the city “the capital of prostitution and vice.” In its statement following that attack, they issued a chilling warning: That this attack was “only the beginning,” and that France, which had already witnessed a number of attacks throughout 2015, remained one of the primary targets of ISIS alongside other countries that “follow its path.”

On Thursday night, just seven months after the last Paris attack, a Tunisian-born man drove a massive truck through a crowd of celebrants gathered to watch the Bastille Day fireworks along the seafront promenade of the southern French city of Nice. He scattered corpses for over a mile, until French security forces succeeded in shooting the driver and bringing his vehicle to a halt. As of this writing, at least 84 people are dead and scores more are injured. The images of people running for their lives, and of mangled bodies sprawled along the iconic promenade, have been described by media outlets around the world with a single world: Horror.

Last night’s attack raises two important questions: Why is France the scene of these horrific mass attacks more often than any other European country; and why do so many of us assume the attacker acted on behalf of ISIS, even though the group has not yet claimed the attack, either officially or unofficially?

As far as it’s possible to wrap one’s head around the motivations of a jihadi group, there are a couple of reasons ISIS targets France so often. One is the French Air Force’s participation in military airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria; the other is widespread resentment among France’s Muslim citizens to the country’s strict official policy of “laïcité,” or secularism. The latter has contributed to the alienation of Muslim youth and restrictions on girls and women who wear the hijab, or Muslim headscarf. Analysts have been making this point for months, even as they note that none of this justifies murderous mass attacks.

So for ISIS and other extremist groups, France is the ultimate opportunity. Leaving aside slogans like “clash of civilizations,” the group’s repeated attacks on the country are purely exploitative.

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In September 2014, France became the first major Western government to officially refer to ISIS as “Daesh,” which is the Arabic acronym of the group’s name. Daesh, which the French-speaking John Kerry has also used on several occasions, has a derogatory connotation among Arabic speakers. ISIS hates it. Laurent Fabius, the then French foreign minister, said at the time: “This is a terrorist group and not a state. I do not recommend using the term Islamic State because it blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims and Islamists.”

This was the same month that France, which has Western Europe’s largest military, began airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq as part of a U.S.-led effort. France had also deployed its military against jihadi groups in West Africa — particularly in Mali, where jihadis affiliated with various groups invaded and controlled swathes of the country from 2012 through 2015.

ISIS made its disdain for the French government’s statements quite clear. In an audio recording purportedly made by Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, the group’s spokesman and chief of external operations, he vowed: “We will strike you in your homeland.” Al-Adnani urged Muslims to kill Europeans, “especially the dirty and spiteful French.” (Incidentally, he welcomed any means, including running them over with a car).

A year later, citing concerns that jihadi operatives in Syria were planning terror attacks against France, the government expanded its airstrikes into Syria. “We will strike whenever our national security is at stake,” the French president said in a statement, adding that their targets were chosen based on intelligence gathered from air surveillance operations.

Among the targets the strikes were said to have hit was an ISIS camp near the city of Raqqa, which the group calls its capital. It’s believed to have been a training facility where foreign fighters were trained to carry out attacks in Europe.

Eight of the attackers who participated in the Paris attacks, all Belgian and French nationals, are believed to have traveled to Syria. Intelligence indicates that ISIS had been looking at external attacks, and specifically in France, as far back as 2012 and 2013. It should be noted that this was years before the refugee crisis in Europe, which is often blamed by conservatives for providing the group with access routes.

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But France’s intervention overseas is not the only opportunity ISIS has been seeking to capitalize on. At home, for decades now, there have been growing complaints of marginalization and unemployment in the French Muslim community, believed to be Europe’s largest. From economic inequality to social isolation, analysts have often described France’s Muslim youth as low-hanging fruit for potential ISIS recruitment in Europe.

In a series of controversial moves, the Muslim headscarf, or “hijab,” was banned in public schools in 2004 (in keeping with France’s strict secularism, Jewish boys and men are also prohibited from wearing a yarmulke; the wearing of large crosses and other religious insignia is also not allowed). The anti-hijab ruling was followed by a 2010 prohibition of the niqab, or full-face veil. The government presented these measures as a means of upholding France’s secular traditions, but many in the Muslim community challenged them as discriminatory and an attack on their way of life.

Following the January 2015 attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher, a Jewish supermarket—the first such wide-scale incidents to rock France—the prime minister commissioned Malek Boutih, a member of parliament, to look into the issue of radicalization. His report “Generation Radical,” published later that summer, warned against a potential “mass phenomenon” of homegrown extremists willing to attack their own country if necessary social and economic measures were not taken.

Official estimates point out to a steady increase in the involvement of French citizens in the activities of ISIS. The French Interior Minister has recently estimated that 1,800 citizens or residents were linked to extremist groups in Iraq and Syria; 250 of them returned to France, while another 140 died. Media reports have also placed French nationals in senior roles within ISIS.

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The threat is present every time there is a major event in the country. A few weeks before the Euro 2016 soccer tournament, which kicked off last month, the head of France’s internal intelligence agency warned of attacks targeting large crowds.

“We know that Daesh is planning new attacks—using fighters in the area, taking routes which facilitate access to our territory—and that France is clearly targeted,” Patrick Calvar reportedly told a parliamentary committee on national defense. France, he added, was the “country most threatened by ISIS,” in his assessment.

Belgian prosecutors said the March attack on the airport in Brussels, which left 32 people killed, was initially meant to be another strike on France.

Given the high level of threat, what was the level of preparedness ahead of the celebrations in the French Riviera? In light of a recent parliament inquiry that found intelligence failures ahead of the 2015 attacks, did French authorities take necessary precautions this summer before Bastille Day? Could such an attack even be stopped?

The very discomfiting reality is, ISIS and its sympathizers are not going to be deterred from committing future attacks. They know all too well the shock value of an attack like the one that occurred on Bastille Day in Nice, at the height of the tourist season in the world’s most touristed country. They know that even though they kill Muslims on a near daily basis in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, and elsewhere, it is these kinds of attacks on France that will provoke wall-to-wall coverage and make it seem like the world quite literally stopped.

Beyond the media splash, as analysts have repeatedly warned over the past 18 months, at the heart of what ISIS is trying to do is provoke a backlash against Muslims in the West to push them toward one of two options: either to leave their countries and move to the so-called caliphate, or feel so pressured that they take on “the cause” and attack their own. And where better to do that than France, with its relative proximity, accessible borders, and societal vulnerabilities?

We still don’t know whether or not ISIS was responsible for the horrific attack in Nice on Bastille Day. But we do know that jihadis will continue to capitalize on deeply divided societies, whether in Iraq or France. The question, time and again after these attacks, is how to respond? With the steady frequency of incidents and the rise of conservatives across Europe, it is difficult to preach restraint and reform.

But it should really be at the heart of any strategy going forward. And what better time to make that case but around Bastille Day—a celebration of the unity of the French people.