France and specifically Paris have yet again been struck by a severe terror attack. I am using singular, as while shootings and explosions took place in several different locations, they were all clearly part of the same coordinated strike. As the picture of what has happened is slowly starting to emerge, this is a recollection of thoughts more than a deep analysis. My thoughts and prayers with those affected in different ways.
So far most things point to the perpetrators being Muslim extremists, especially as President Hollande has confirmed that ISIS is behind the attack. The whole discussion whether ISIS, Al Qaida, or some other group is behind this is not a straightforward one. To begin with, neither ISIS nor AQ has any strict membership criteria, so determining whether a person has joined or is affiliated with one of them is something of a sliding scale. This can range from lone people in front of their computers declaring allegiance to a certain movement, via people that have travelled to an active warzone like Syria and took part in fighting, all the way to those actually involved in the hierarchy, getting direct orders from higher ranks and in turn having subordinates.
Due to the continuous intelligence operations ongoing against these kinds of networks, the last kind of membership is probably rather rare in European countries, as it creates too many opportunities for western intelligence agencies to monitor and eventually round-up whole networks of jihadists.
As such, many of the recent terrorists in Europe have been either so called ‘lone wolves’ or a handful of tightly knit people. This, however, is clearly something else, as indicated by the amount of coordination and ample supply of both weapons and explosives. The most obvious example of this kind of coordinated effort with both explosions and gunfire is the Mumbai attacks of 2008. In that case, there were some troubling claims made that the attackers would have received help from the Pakistani intelligence service, further highlighting the level of planning and coordination needed to pull of something like this.
The link to Syria and Hollande’s quote that the attack ”was prepared, organized and planned from outside” with help from inside France, shows the scope of the operation. To note is also the fact that he is able to both make this statement as well as to single out ISIS in less than 24 hours after the attack, which shows that French law enforcement and intelligence have a rather good picture of what has happened. The Germans connecting a recent terrorist-related arrest in Bavaria lends further credit to the work done by the different agencies combatting terrorism.
After attacks like this, if the terrorists have been active in the country for any serious length of time, they have usually been “under surveillance” or “known to the police”. That they still have been able to perform the attacks is not necessarily a sign of failure on behalf of the police or intelligence community, as is often claimed in certain mass media. The amount of radicalised young angry men quite certainly is outnumbering the actual terrorists by several orders of magnitude. It is simply impossible to have 100% control over the movements of them all.
Migration – The hot topic
The backlash (and counter-backlash) against the recent migration wave to Europe was as predictable as it is unhelpful. The number of simplifications and shortcuts made is staggering, but let’s note what in my opinion is the most glaring problems:
While the majority of immigrants are certainly not violent, denying that this influx of people from differing cultures will have an impact on their new home country is foolish. Some of this will be positive, some will be negative, and some things will simply be different. Pretending like there isn’t a story here just leaves the field open for populists to insert their narrative. Of course people fleeing different levels of atrocities and unsafe environments and then settling in a completely foreign culture will lead to a host of issues. Most, perhaps all, of these can be worked around, but only if we first acknowledge their existence.
Aux armes, citoyens
President Hollande also described this as “an act of war”, leading to speculation whether he will invoke NATO’s Article 5 and/or Article 222 of the
Lisbon Treaty. Edit: Sorry, I mixed up paragraph 222.7 of the TFEU with 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty. The quoted text is from the former and not the latter. The point is still valid though, as Hollande could have called upon either of the two treaties. The former includes the famous passage:
“…an armed attack against one [member,] each of them […] will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force”
While the latter reads:
“…if a Member State is the object of a terrorist attack […] The Union shall mobilise all the instruments at its disposal, including the military resources made available by the Member States.”
From a Finnish (and Swedish) viewpoint, it is worth noting that the latter is actually harsher, as it calls for “all instruments at its disposal”, and not just “such action as it deems necessary”. It is entirely possible for France to call upon the assistance of the Union, something which theoretically should have us mobilise all our resources to fight ISIS in order to “prevent the terrorist threat in the territory of” France. How such an enquiry would be answered is anybody’s guess, but it is safe to say that the request in itself would probably have an impact on the national security debate in Finland by once and for all killing the illusion of us still being neutral.
The French military have a reputation in the Anglo-Saxon parts of the world of being weak “surrender monkeys”, an account which is based on the German assault in 1940 and the less than stellar performance of the French in that campaign. This reputation have always been more or less unfounded, and especially so now, more than three-quarters of a century later. Few if any countries gave the Germans a run for their money in the early stages of WWII, and in the years since the Armée de terre have played an active part in France’s foreign policy by taking part in a number of conflicts small and large. Taking place mainly in their former colonies in Africa, their deployments have been conducted in a fairly low-key manner, but the armed force are known for executing their missions with a resolve bordering on ruthlessness. Few people on the street in Finland today would e.g. know that France last year intervened with thousands of soldiers and turned the tide of the Malian Civil War (Opération Serval), or that France in 2004 completely wiped out the Ivorian Air Force after two of their bombers (by accident?) attacked French peacekeepers in the country. When François Hollande states that they will fight ISIS with all means possible, he seems to be talking about stepping up the level of operations somehow. France is continously using their air force, and their single carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, was already before the attacks on its way back to join the air strikes for a second tour. As such, it is entirely possible that France will send special forces or elite light infantry, such as the 2e REP of the foreign legion, to Iraq and eastern Syria to turn up the heat on ISIS, as well as to make a point of not giving in to the terrorist.
The European Dimension
Speaking of making points, it is hard not to see the targets as being highly symbolic for what ISIS detests, such as sports, western culture, and young people of both sexes intermingling freely. Finnish Minister of Finance Alexander Stubb contrasted these civilian targets to the political attack on Charlie Hebdo in January, but I am inclined to believe that in the eyes of the terrorists, these restaurants, the stadium, and the theatre were as political as the office of the satirical newspaper.
In addition, both France and Germany had high-ranking politicians at the football game targeted, the German Foreign Office eerily tweeting a picture of President Hollande and German Foreign Minister Steinmeier from the game before the attack, using the hashtag #FrancoGermanFriendship.
How a European Union already strained by the migrant crisis will react to this is yet unclear, but at least Poland and Slovakia has announced that this will affect their willingness to take in Muslim migrants negatively. In the same way, Russia is using the development to bolster their narrative of fighting ISIS together with Assad, despite the fact that their main focus have so far been more ‘moderate’ rebel groups.