Wednesday,18 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1271, (19-25 November 2015)
Wednesday,18 July, 2018
Issue 1271, (19-25 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

France fights back

French President François Hollande vowed this week to destroy the Islamic State terrorist group, writes David Tresilian in Paris

Al-Ahram Weekly

Addressing an extraordinary session of the French parliament at the Palace of Versailles outside Paris on Monday, French President François Hollande vowed to “destroy” the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group responsible for last Friday’s coordinated attacks in the French capital that left at least 129 people dead and some 352 wounded.

The attacks, the worst to have taken place in France since World War II and the first in which suicide bombings have taken place on the French mainland, took place last Friday evening between 9:20 and 9:53pm and in one case continued until well after midnight.

They targeted neighbourhood restaurants and a well-known music venue in the capital’s 11th district that is popular with young people as well as the Stade de France football stadium outside Paris during a football match that was being attended by Hollande.

They were carried out by eight gunmen and suicide-bombers claiming affiliation with IS. Five of the men have been positively identified as French nationals of North African origin, and most are believed to have earlier travelled to Syria for training with IS. At least five of the eight died in the attacks.

In his speech, which ended with a rousing performance of the French national anthem La Marseillaise by the assembled French parliamentarians, Hollande said, “France is at war. The acts committed on Friday night in Paris and near the Stade de France were acts of war. They are an attack on our country and on its values, its young people, and its way of life.”

Now was not the time to “contain” IS, Hollande said, using the Arabic acronym Daesh. Instead, it was necessary to “destroy this organisation in order to save whole populations — that of Syria, that of Iraq, that of Lebanon, that of Jordan and that of Turkey and all those of other neighbouring countries.”

In a separate development, Russia said for the first time on Monday that the Russian passenger jet that crashed in Sinai last month on its way to Moscow from the Egyptian resort of Sharm El-Sheikh was brought down by a bomb thought to have been planted by IS.

A general state of emergency has been declared in France for the first time since 1961 and tens of thousands of extra security personnel have been deployed across the country. Hundreds of raids have been carried out across France under emergency laws, with parallel investigations taking place in neighbouring Belgium. At least 23 arrests have been made.

On Sunday, French forces began bombing raids on IS positions in Syria in response to the attacks in Paris. In his speech, Hollande said that the strikes were designed to destroy the IS headquarters in the Syrian town of Raqqa. They would continue over the days and weeks to come, he said, and they would be supported by the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, now on its way to the Arabian Gulf.

During the total of eight attacks carried out by teams of two or three terrorists in coordinated assaults across the French capital, at least 89 people were killed when armed gunmen began firing on the audience at the Bataclan concert hall following earlier shootings at nearby bars and restaurants in which some 39 people were killed.

An attempted suicide bombing of the Stade de France during a match between France and Germany attended by the French president was foiled when the attackers were apparently prevented from entering the stadium, causing them to detonate themselves outside.

The French capital was quiet on Saturday as the enormity of what had happened began to sink in, with all tourist attractions closed to visitors. On Sunday, spontaneous demonstrations of solidarity with the victims of the attacks began to take place across the country despite an order outlawing public demonstrations.

By Monday morning, indications of those responsible for the attacks had begun to emerge, with five of the seven killed being positively identified.

French nationals of North African origin Ismail Omar Mostefai and Samy Amimour carried out the attack on the Bataclan music hall with one other man, blowing themselves up when the police intervened, and Bilal Hadfi and Ahmad Al-Mohammad, the first also a French national, carried out the attack on the Stade de France.

As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press, it was thought that Al-Mohammad was a Syrian national, though serious doubts remained regarding his true identity and the authenticity of the identity papers found on his body. Al-Mohammad was the only non-French national involved in the attacks.

Ibrahim Abdelsalam blew himself up at the Comptoir Voltaire restaurant in the city’s 11th district. His brother, Salah Abdelsalam, also believed to be involved in the attacks, is still being searched for by police. The men are linked to the district of Molenbeek in the Belgian capital Brussels where several of them are believed to have been living before the attacks took place.

They are also believed to have travelled to Syria over the past five years to receive training at the hands of IS, and they are linked to a Belgian national, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who is believed to have masterminded the operation and is being sought by French and Belgian police.

According to reports in the French press, the terrorists had similar criminal backgrounds and were in many cases already known to the police. Mostefai, one of the attackers of the Bataclan music venue, had an extensive criminal record and was suspected of being an Islamist extremist. Amimour, also responsible for the Bataclan attack, was arrested for suspected involvement in a terrorist plot in Yemen in 2012.

While the Abdelsalam brothers had not previously drawn the attention of the authorities in France, they had been identified as petty criminals and potential Islamist extremists by the Belgian police.

As France went back to work on Monday after a weekend marked by national grieving and solidarity with the victims of the attacks, further questions began to be asked about how best to respond to the attacks as police investigations continued of possible further suspects.

In his speech on Monday, Hollande announced that the state of emergency would be extended for a further three months, giving police extensive powers to carry out raids without obtaining warrants and deploying a further 10,000 soldiers across the country.

Dual French nationals convicted of terrorist offences would be stripped of their nationality, and individuals suspected of terrorist sympathies placed under house arrest.

Border controls would be reintroduced before the end of the year, Hollande said, and jihadists of French nationality returning from Syria would be automatically arrested. A constitutional amendment would be placed before the French parliament to make it easier for the security forces to act in what was “a war of a new kind against a new kind of adversary.”

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris in January in which 17 people died in attacks by Islamist extremists in Paris, there were incidents of Islamophobia across France, including attacks on mosques and on individuals identified as Muslim.

There are now fears that such incidents could repeat themselves, despite appeals for calm and national unity from French Muslim associations and public figures. “There is a difficult atmosphere,” Abdelkader Ounissi, imam of a mosque in Bagnolet outside Paris, told the French newspaper Le Monde on Monday. “People are concerned about what might happen now.”

“Mosques across France are asking what they can do to help and how they can express their solidarity with the victims,” Anouar Kbibech, president of the Conseil français du culte musulman (CFCM), a French national Muslim organisation, said.

The CFCM immediately denounced “the odious attacks” after they took place, as did the Union des organisations islamiques de France (UOIF), another national association, and the Collectif contre l’islamophobie en France (CCIF).

“Only national unity will allow us to defeat this barbarous terrorism and help us to face up to such events,” a UOIF statement said.

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