Cover Story

Terror in Paris

Print edition : December 11, 2015

Spectators running onto the field of Stade de France after explosions were heard nearby during a football match between France and Germany in Saint Denis, outside Paris, on November 13. President Francois Hollande was watching the match at the stadium. Photo: Christophe Ena/AP

The Bataclan cafe near the Bataclan concert hall where terrorists went on a killing spree. Photo: MARTIN BUREAU/AFP

Paramedics treat a victim of the terrorist assault outside the Bataclan concert hall. Photo: Pierre Terdjman/The New York Times

People pay their respects to the victims at the site of the attacks on the restaurant Le Petit Cambodge and Carillon Hotel, on November 15. Photo: Peter DejongAP

People gather for a national service for the victims of the terror attack at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris on November 15. Photo: Daniel Ochoa de Olza/AP

In a railway station in Paris, enforcing the Vigipirate plan, France's national security alert system, on November 19. Photo: THOMAS SAMSON/AFP

Francois Hollande, French President, delivers a statement on the terrorist attacks from the Elysee Palace on November 13. Photo: CHRISTELLE ALIX/NYT

Retaliatory action against the Islamic State is high on the agenda of an angry Europe and the international community in the wake of the Paris terror attacks, but what is needed is a genuine international coalition which includes the Syrian government and secular opposition in order to confront the terrorist group.

The massacre in Paris of more than 130 innocent people by terrorists owing allegiance to the Islamic State (I.S.) on November 13 has shaken and angered Europe and the international community. World leaders have in unison condemned the killings in Paris, terming it a crime against humanity. Gunmen and bombers attacked a concert hall, restaurants and a stadium across Paris. Among those dead were men and women from 19 different nationalities. There are eerie similarities between the attack in Paris and the 2008 terror attack in Mumbai. French President Francois Hollande declared it “an act of war that was prepared and organised abroad and with complicity” from individuals in France. He announced the imposition of a three-month “state of emergency”.

It is the second major terror attack the French capital has experienced this year. The attack on the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in January had claimed fewer lives but was a warning that France was high on the priority list of terror groups. France, along with the United States and Britain, has been a leading member of the anti-I.S. coalition that has been bombing the group from the air for the past two years. The I.S. was quick to claim credit for the latest terror attack. The statement from the I.S. described Paris as “the capital of prostitution and obscenity”.

The I.S. has recently been busy staging terror attacks in other parts of the world, but those serious incidents did not elicit the kind of international response the Paris massacre did. On October 10, the I.S. targeted a peaceful protest in the Turkish capital, Ankara, killing more than 110 people. Its targeting of a Russian civilian plane on October 31 led to the death of all 224 people on board (story on page 19). Russia confirmed in the third week of November that it was “an improvised explosive device” that brought down the plane. On November 12, a day before the horrific bloodletting in Paris, I.S. suicide bombers targeted a shopping district in Beirut, killing 43 people. Lebanon, which hosts more than a million Syrian refugees, has been repeatedly targeted by the I.S. Hundreds of people have died in the last couple of years in Lebanon.

In Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, the I.S. routinely targets mosques and marketplaces in its brazen bid to further accentuate the sectarian divide. The I.S. has been active in Afghanistan and Bangladesh, where in recent weeks it targeted minority sects and foreign nationals for beheading and assassination. On November 18, Boko Haram, the Nigerian affiliate of the I.S., bombed a marketplace in Yola, killing more than 30 people. Thousands of Nigerians have been killed by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria in the past three years.

The Paris terror attack happened at a time when France was on high alert, preparing for the global Climate Change Conference scheduled to be held in late November. Yet, the eight terrorists managed to target sites frequented by the general public, including the stadium in which the French national football team was playing against their German counterparts. Hollande was watching the match along with the German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeir. Another prominent landmark targeted was the Bataclan music hall, where a famous rock band was playing to a packed house. Restaurants and bars were also targeted on the busy weekend. The terrorists wrought the maximum havoc at the music concert. Almost all the attackers were radicalised French citizens and, according to those who survived the carnage, they were highly trained and motivated.

Some of them had apparently gone to fight in Syria alongside the I.S. “We know, and it is cruel to say this, that on Friday it was the French who killed other French,” Hollande told a special joint session of parliament. “They are, living on our soil, who from delinquency go on to radicalisation and then to terrorist criminality.” He was referring to the Arab and Muslim minorities living in the suburbs located outside big cities.

According to reports, one of the attackers had recently come from Syria posing as a refugee. Seven of the terrorists were either killed or blew themselves up. Among the three suicide bombers involved in the massacre in the Bataclan theatre was 30-year-old Ismail Omar Mostefai, a French citizen. He has been on the radar of the French police since 2010 because of his radical proclivities. He had reportedly travelled to Syria between 2014 and 2015. The French security services had claimed that they were closely monitoring 200 of their citizens who had come back from Syria.

The French authorities initially stated that only one among the eight attackers involved in the Paris terror attack, also a French citizen, managed to escape. However, five days after the attack, the police said that one more person involved in the terror attacks might have escaped. The French authorities announced on November 19 that they had killed Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the man being credited with masterminding the Paris attacks. The French police staged a pre-dawn raid in the Paris suburb of St. Denis on November 18. Abaaoud and a female accomplice blew themselves up. Abaaoud, like two of the terrorists involved in the Paris attack, was from the Molenbeek district of Brussels. One of them was just 15 years old. The district has a large number of Muslims, many of whom have gone to wage war on behalf of the I.S. in Syria and Iraq. When the civil war in Syria started, many European governments, particularly those of France and Belgium, looked the other way as thousands of young men went to wage jehad. After all, getting rid of the secular government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria was the priority then for the West.

Retaliatory attacks

After the Paris attack, France has retaliated by going on a bombing spree against I.S. targets in Syria. Until now France had restricted its bombing to I.S. targets in Iraq only. Most of the aerial bombardment is concentrated on the city of Raqqa, the capital of the self-proclaimed Islamic Caliphate. After it was conclusively proved that a bomb had destroyed the Russian passenger plane, Moscow, too, has started pounding Raqqa. According to reports, it is the civilian population in the city that is getting impacted the most. For every I.S. fighter killed, eight civilians also perish as collateral damage. The U.S. has also said that in solidarity with France it would intensify its attacks on the I.S. For the first time, the U.S. has started targeting convoys carrying oil produced in I.S.-controlled refineries in Iraq and Syria. There are now more calls in the U.S. and France from right-wing politicians to send ground troops into Syria. U.S. President Barack Obama has so far rejected the proposal.

At the recent meeting of the 17-member International Syria Support Group in Vienna, there was an agreement to work towards a ceasefire in Syria and the holding of elections within two years. The group includes the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Both Russia and Iran have reiterated their support for Assad while the U.S. and France continue to stubbornly insist that he make way for a non-existent moderate opposition.

After the attacks, Hollande requested the National Assembly and the Senate to modify the 1955 law that governs the state of emergency and give the government more powers. During the emergency period, freedom of speech and assembly can be curtailed. In the U.S. too, there are growing calls to further strengthen government surveillance. John Brennan, director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), criticised the “hand wringing” over intrusive government spying and indirectly blamed whistle-blowers such as Edward Snowden for making it difficult for the intelligence agencies to identify “the murderous sociopaths of the I.S.”.

Hollande has the support of all the major parties on the imposition of the state of emergency and his bid to widen the war in West Asia. The leader of the extreme right-wing National Front, Marine Le Pen, said that the government should use the emergency laws “to go and disarm the suburbs, carry out searches, and look for weapons”. Unemployment in the French suburbs is very high. The secretary general of the right-wing Republican Party said that 4,000 French citizens who were on a watch list owing to their suspected ties with extremist groups should be placed “in specifically designated anti-terrorists internment camps”. Manual Valls, the Prime Minister, told French television that the government “will annihilate the enemies of the Republic, kick out all these radical Imams, as we are already doing, strip all those who besmirch the French spirit of their nationality”.

War in Syria

Terror attacks, as the attacks on New York, London and Paris have illustrated, lead to increased state surveillance and curtailment of many individual liberties. Even before the Paris attacks this year, the French parliament had passed laws that allowed agencies to spy on phone, the Internet and other communications in real time. In May this year, the French parliament approved another law which gave the police even more sweeping powers. The police can now install spying devices in people’s homes and cars and also tap their computers and phones.

France has ordered its only aircraft carrier, Charles De Gaulle, to the Persian Gulf to better coordinate the war efforts in the region along with other Western allies “and bolster its firepower”. U.S. Admiral James Stavridis, the former Supreme Commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), has called on the Western alliance to respond to the Paris attacks by going to war in Syria.

The 9/11 terror attacks on the American mainland had led to the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq had an important role to play in the rise of the I.S. For that matter, there was no Al Qaeda before the West started arming the mujahideen groups fighting against a progressive government in Kabul in the 1970s. Another invasion could have even more devastating consequences.

The I.S. gained more traction after the West started its move to destabilise the Syrian government. The French were in the forefront of these moves after their success in spearheading the regime change operations in Libya. France was among the countries that flouted the European Union’s embargo in 2012 on the delivery of weapons to the rebel factions in Syria. Hollande told the French journalist and writer Xavier Panon last year that French secret services had “delivered lethal weapons” to the rebel groups. Many of these weapons were airlifted from Libya. It is another matter that the moderate forces France supported in Libya turned out be Islamists. Many of them have joined the I.S. in Libya. France emerged as the leading backer of the so-called moderate rebel groups in Syria. These groups formed tacit alliances with the I.S. and other jehadi groups. Eventually, after “moderate” groups like the Free Syrian Army faded, French arms, including sophisticated weaponry like APILAS rocket launchers, fell into the hands of the I.S.

The Americans and the French are today helping the Saudis bomb Yemen, where the Houthi-led alliance was fighting the I.S. and Al Qaeda. Today in cities like Aden, Al Qaeda and the I.S. are roaming free, and sometimes turning their guns on their erstwhile benefactors—the Saudi-led Gulf alliance. In December 2009, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted in a confidential memo that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding for Sunni terrorist groups worldwide”. U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden also said in a speech delivered at Harvard that the Gulf States, led by the Saudis, had poured in hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tonnes of military weapons that eventually ended in the hands of jehadi groups like the al Nusra Front. It is still not too late for France and the U.S. to convince their allies like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar to stop militarily and financially helping jehadi groups, some of them masquerading as moderate opposition groups, in Syria.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while extending his condolences to the French government and the people, said that France’s “mistaken policies” had contributed to the spread of terrorism. He said what France had experienced was something the Syrian people had been going through every day for the past five years. “France has got to know what we live with in Syria,” he told a group of visiting French parliamentarians. The Syrian President said that he had been warning the European leaders about the dangers the conflict in Syria posed to their countries. “We warned against what would happen in Europe for the last three years,” he told the French delegation.

Anti-immigrant rhetoric

The discovery that one of the terrorists involved in the Paris attack was a recent refugee from Syria has given right-wing politicians in Europe and the U.S. the chance to ramp up their anti-immigrant rhetoric. The new right-wing government in Poland has said that it will not accept any refugees from Syria. Jeb Bush, who is seeking the Republican Party’s nomination for presidency, said that if elected he would allow entry to only Christian refugees from Syria into the U.S. Twenty-five U.S. Republican Governors have said that they will not allow the entry of Syrian refugees into their States. Obama had announced that the U.S. would take in 10,000 refugees from Syria this year.

The threat the I.S. poses to the international community is unlikely to diminish in the short term. It holds important cities like Mosul and Ramadi in Iraq, where it has the support of the local Sunni population. The only way these cities can be retaken is by bombing them to rubble. Cities recently liberated from the I.S. with the help of American air power, like Khobani and Sinjar, have been completely destroyed, but they were small habitations in comparison to Mosul, which has a population of more than two million. One of the aims of the I.S. is to force countries like the U.S. and France to put their forces on the ground for a frontal fight. The I.S. today has one of the largest and diverse fighting forces in the world. It has control over a territory that is bigger than many of the states in the region. Its influence has been expanding in the past two years in the Eurasian region, with affiliates in South-East Asian nations like the Philippines.

Only the kind of solution being proposed by countries like Iran and Russia can save the situation in the long run. There has to be a genuine international coalition which includes the Syrian government and the secular opposition in order to confront the I.S. In Iraq, where the I.S. has the most support, the minority Sunni population will have to be given political concessions so that they can be brought back into the mainstream. Many of the I.S. military commanders were former officers of the Iraqi Army and members of the secular Baath Party. They only joined the extremist bandwagon after the U.S. invasion of 2003.

The U.S., France and their regional allies still want to fight the secular government and the I.S. at the same time. Such a strategy will only end up bolstering the strength of the I.S. However, there are indications that better sense may prevail. French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said after the Paris killings that “a grand coalition with Russia is possible”.

The Russian and U.S. Presidents, meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit held in Antalya, Turkey, on November 15 and 16, agreed to allow the U.N. to play a greater role to end the bloodshed in Syria. All the leaders assembled at the G-20 summit called for a united front to fight the Islamic State.

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