In the aftermath of 9/11, France seemed to be under less threat from an al-Qaeda-style terrorist attack than other European countries. The threat seemed to be far greater in Britain, Spain, the Netherlands or Denmark.
However, following a sudden and bloody wave of terrorist attacks, which started with the killing spree of Mohamed Merah in Toulouse in 2012, France is now seen as the principal target of al-Qaeda and ISIS. And little wonder. After the Toulouse attack, there was the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January 2015, which left 12 dead; the Paris attacks in November 2015, which left 137 dead; the Nice attack in July 2016, which left 84 people dead; the killing of a priest in August 2016; and the murder of two police officers in June 2016. And this roll-call of terror does not even include countless thwarted or failed attacks.
Nevertheless, this sudden rise in Islamist terror attacks in France over the past five years hides a continuity with that which went before. In fact, the phenomenon of the ‘homegrown terrorist’ that has struck Europe and the US has not suddenly now emerged in France, too. In fact, it began in France in 1995 with the Paris Metro and RER bombings, orchestrated by the Islamist Khaled Kelkal, and the failed attempt to blow up a G7 meeting in Lille in 1996, by the so-called Gang of Roubaix, an al-Qaeda grouplet.
In both cases, those involved were either second-generation Muslim migrants or converts; about half of them had a past of petty delinquency; a few were religious before their radicalisation, but most made a belated return to religion (or converted to Islam); almost all of them died in the course of their action; and, finally, all of them connected their attacks with global jihad (be it in Bosnia or Afghanistan).
The phenomeon of homegrown terrorism began in France in 1995 with the Paris Metro and RER bombings
Strangely enough, this pattern, this terrorist typology, has remained consistent over the past 20 years: the Kouachi brothers (who murdered the Charlie Hebdo journalists) had a very similar profile to Khaled Kelkal. Today, almost 90 per cent of terrorists and hardline jihadists in France are, like their 1990s predecessors, second-generation migrants or converts, with few first-generation and even fewer third-generation migrants (whose number should have considerably increased during the last two decades) becoming involved.
This continuity with the 1990s is also illustrated by another pattern: each group or individual has been groomed by a member of a previous radical cell. So, for example, Djamel Beghal, jailed in 2005 for a planned suicide bomb attack, and Salafist preacher Farid Benyettou, also jailed in 2005, mentored fellow prisoner Chérif Kouachi, one of the brothers behind the Charlie Hebdo attack. Even apparent ‘lone wolves’, who radicalise themselves online, come into virtual contact with seasoned radical Islamists based in Syria. Indeed, from the formation of Beghal’s terrorist group itself in 1997 to the cell behind the Paris attacks in 2015, the chain effect is well documented. The only obvious change in the nature of those recruited since ISIS replaced al-Qaeda as the magnet for radicalism is that the jihadist volunteers now tend to be younger, and feature more women.
But despite the continuity, it is clear that there has been a rise in both terrorist attacks and the recruitment of jihadists in France over the past five years. Why has this happened?
One possible explanation is ISIS’s strategic decision to target France, as punishment for joining the US in military action in Iraq and Syria. But that does not explain why the terrorist attacks resumed in 2012. After all, France joined the anti-ISIS military coalition in September 2014.
Moreover, as I have pointed out, the process of radicalisation did not stop between 2001 and 2012. It is more accurate to state that there is both a continuity and a rise in the recruitment of volunteers for global jihad since 1995. This trend is not really related to the specific dynamics of a local conflict, be it Iraq or Syria. Those flocking to Syria today would have headed to Bosnia, or Afghanistan, or Yemen in the late 1990s.
Rather, it’s the lull in terrorist attacks in France between 2000 and 2012 that needs explaining, rather than their rise over the past five years. And that, I would suggest, has more to do with the efficiency and effectiveness of the police than with a problem of recruitment or the strategic decisions made by al-Qaeda or ISIS.