Unity key to France's war against terrorism

Unity key to France's war against terrorism

"Our best army is our national unity," French President Francois Hollande told his people in the wake of the massacre at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in Paris, the bloodiest terrorist attack in France in half a century.

And the people responded accordingly: At least 100,000 participated in spontaneous demonstrations across the country, many waving pens in the air, an act of support for freedom of expression and defiance against terrorists.

However, the spread of violence to other parts of the French capital yesterday is an indication that the country's terrorist problems are deep-seated, and that it will have to draw the necessary operational and political lessons from such threats. But that will not be easy, for it may require large resources, a clear political vision and an even higher degree of national unity than the French are currently showing.

In operational terms, the murders in Paris confirm what is by now a global trend of terrorist attacks perpetrated by a handful of people who are connected to each other by family or friendship bonds, but are only vaguely inspired by, rather than having direct links to, international terrorist networks.

Whether it is the Tsarnaev brothers who perpetrated the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013; Mehdi Nemmouche, a French national who stormed a Jewish Museum in Belgium last May; the two Britons who beheaded a soldier in London; or Man Haron Monis, the Iranian refugee who held customers at gunpoint in a cafe in Sydney last month, the pattern is the same: Individuals who take it upon themselves to kill and learn their deadly trade either from friends or the Internet. What they do is deadly, but not terribly sophisticated.

Despite their pretence to be pious fighters for a religious cause, some of these lone terrorists are relatively new converts to the faith they claim to defend and most have no idea of the complexities or subtleties of their religion.

Many also have a criminal record and are often known to the authorities in the context of terrorism. Cherif Kouachi, one of the alleged perpetrators of the latest murders, had already served an 18-month jail term for terrorist activities and his criminal file, and that of his brother Said who was also allegedly involved in the attack, were reviewed by French investigators as late as July 2013.

It is tempting to argue that, had the French justice system imposed heavier sentences on terrorists or had French police been more active in pursuit of known suspects, the current tragedy could have been avoided.

Neither is true. Up to 70 per cent of inmates in French jails are Muslims, despite the fact that they represent only 12 per cent of French nationals; locking up more people for longer periods will only exacerbate the threat they pose once released.

Arresting people on the slightest suspicion is not feasible either.

Still, there are areas where improvements can be made. Because they operate one of the most efficient identity documentation systems in Europe and feel they have a good handle on what their people are up to, the French intelligence services tend to prefer to wait once they identify a terrorist suspect, in the hope of gleaning more information. In the age of the "lone wolf" terrorist attack, that may have to change.

The French may also have to tweak their "Plan Vigipirate", the quasi-war measures they implement when faced with a terrorist attack.

The plan was conceived in the 1970s and expanded during the mid-1990s, after attacks began on the Paris underground railway system. But the arrangements may be too heavy-handed and not nimble enough to deal with today's challenges.

And then, a broader process of consultation needs to take place in France and elsewhere in Europe about the proper division of responsibility between the anti-terrorism protection provided by the state, and that which should be provided by companies and individuals.

Police officers did provide protection for key journalists at Charlie Hebdo, but the building was not secured, and the officers tragically died together with the people they sought to defend.

One of the biggest problems is how to drain the pool of hatred on which these terrorists feed. A major difficulty is the fact that, while most Europeans are no longer religious and are therefore relaxed about people making fun of their beliefs, a lot of Muslims in Europe are deeply attached to and protective of their faith. Charlie Hebdo - which advertises itself as "The Irresponsible Journal" - frequently mocked the Infant Jesus and the Pope and greeted the legalisation of gay marriages in France with an obscene cartoon about the Christian Holy Trinity.

Cartoons about Islam were rare, but they tended to hurt more people.

But the biggest problem for French leaders now is how to remind the country's Muslim population that it has an obligation to tolerate opposing views however repugnant these may be, without victimising an entire Muslim minority or legitimising the poisonous propaganda of extremist French politicians who claim that Muslims cannot fit into European societies, however long they live on the continent.

Ms Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, may be beyond redemption on this point: Although she was measured in her response to the latest attack, she has referred in the past to the presence of Muslims in France as an "occupation", and is likely to continue doing so.

But other leaders, particularly Mr Nicolas Sarkozy who has resumed the leadership of the centre-right, need to be persuaded to resist the temptation of resorting to populist, anti-Islamic statements.

The real fight is to ensure that mainstream politicians remain in the mainstream.

Perhaps all French leaders should recall one of Charlie Hebdo's cartoons which showed a Muslim kissing a cartoonist, with the caption "L'amour: Plus fort que la haine", or "Love: Stronger than Hate".

This article was first published on January 9, 2015.
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