Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1272, (26 November - 2 December 2015)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1272, (26 November - 2 December 2015)

Ahram Weekly

After the attacks

France has been left reeling by the attacks that killed 130 people in Paris this month, with questions now focusing on the background of the terrorists and the government’s response, writes David Tresilian in Paris

Al-Ahram Weekly

As France returns to something like normality after the horrific attacks that killed 130 people in Paris earlier this month and left over 350 wounded, questions are being asked about why the country’s intelligence services failed to prevent the attacks and the adequacy or otherwise of the government’s response.

The attacks, the worst to have taken place in France since the Second World War, took place on the evening of 13 November, when eight Islamist gunmen and suicide-bombers claiming affiliation with the terrorist Islamic State (IS) group, attacked bars and restaurants in the east of the capital along with the Bataclan, a music venue popular with young people.

Ninety people died when three gunmen opened fire on the audience in the Bataclan theatre, with others being killed in attacks on nearby restaurants. At the same time, three other gunmen blew themselves up outside the Stade de France football stadium in Saint Denis north of Paris during a football match that was being attended by French President François Hollande.

Eight gunmen are thought to have taken part in the attacks, seven of them blowing themselves up either in suicide attacks or during shoot-outs with police. Most of the men have been identified as French nationals of North African origin, and most are believed to have travelled to Syria for training with IS.

One of the men thought to have taken part in the attacks, French national Salah Abdel-Salam, is still at large and is being sought by European police.

In a speech to the French parliament after the attacks, Hollande said France was “at war” with the Islamic State group that is believed to have carried out the attacks, describing them as “attacks on our country and its values”. A state of emergency has been declared in France for the next three months, and tens of thousands of extra security personnel deployed.

Over 400 raids on addresses across France have been carried out under emergency laws and over 60 people arrested. More than one hundred people have been placed under house arrest.

During a police raid carried out in an impoverished area of Saint Denis last week, not far from the Stade de France where one of the attacks took place, Belgian national Abdel-Hamid Abaaoud, described as the mastermind behind the attacks, and two other people died in a shoot-out with police.

The raid, met by gunmen armed with automatic weapons, largely destroyed the top floor of the apartment building in which Abaaoud and others had taken refuge. According to reports in the French press, more than five thousand rounds were fired by 110 armed police during the raid in which one of the suspects, at first thought to have been a woman, blew himself up.

Meanwhile, French forces have been continuing bombing raids on IS positions in Syria in response to the Paris attacks. In his speech last week, Hollande said the strikes were designed to destroy the IS headquarters in the Syrian town of Raqqa and would continue over the weeks to come in association with France’s allies.

With more details of the attackers now appearing every day in the French press, a picture is emerging of a group of young men of mostly French nationality and North African origin, most of them already known to police as a result of petty crime or jihadist activities in Europe or Syria, as having carried out the attacks.

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 in a battle with police, and Bilal Hadfi and Ahmed Al-Mohamed, the first also a French national, carried out the attack on the Stade de France.

Ibrahim Abdel-Salam, brother of Salah Abdel-Salam, blew himself up at a restaurant in eastern Paris.

Mostefai, 29 years old and born in the town of Courcouronnes near Paris, had an extensive criminal record and came to the attention of the French intelligence services in 2010 in connection with suspected jihadist activities. According to Le Monde, he visited Syria in 2013, later returning to live in the French town of Chartres.

Amimour, 28 years old and born in Drancy near Paris, is believed to have gone to Syria in late 2013 following a period of radicalisation in France. According to his father, Ezzeddine Amimour, interviewed in Le Monde, Amimour had cut off links with his family and had refused to accompany his father to Algeria in an attempt to “make a new life” for himself in the country.

Hadfi, the youngest of the terrorists aged just 20 years old, had become progressively radicalised from late 2014. According to his mother, interviewed in the Belgian newspaper La Libre Belgique, “he stopped smoking and started fasting on Mondays and Thursdays in order to beg forgiveness from God. I thought this was positive because at least he was no longer drinking and smoking joints.”

The fact that most of the attackers were already known to police and had trained with IS in Syria before returning to France to carry out this month’s attacks has led to criticisms of the French and European intelligence services, accused of not having done enough to halt them.

According to French security officials interviewed by Le Monde, some 11,700 names now figure on the government’s list of individuals suspected of having links with jihadist groups, with a “hard core” of 2,000 being watched by the Direction Générale de la Securité Intérieure (DGSI), the French internal security service.

Even if were possible to collect information on all these individuals, the officials explained, it would scarcely be possible to follow all of them because of the human resources involved. Some 480 French nationals have travelled to Syria since January, according to the DGSI, despite laws voted late last year that authorised the confiscation of passports from suspected jihadists.

However, it is not only the security services that have come in for criticism since the 13 November attacks, with various politicians and commentators in the French media demanding further or alternative action by the government.

While MPs overwhelmingly voted in favour of extending the state of emergency for another three months in a vote in the French parliament last week, the additional powers this gives police, including ordering house arrests, searching properties without a warrant, and carrying arms even when off duty, have caused some to protest against the reduction in civil liberties such powers entail.

The fact that the attacks seem to have been planned from Brussels in neighbouring Belgium, where a major police operation led to several days of lockdown in the city earlier this week, has also led to calls to reinstate border controls between EU member states in the Schengen Zone, previously abolished in order to encourage EU integration.

One of the three gunmen who blew himself up outside the Stade de France on 13 November, whose identity has not been confirmed, seems to have entered the EU via Greece in October and to have followed the same route taken by the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria.

However, the others would not have needed to take the route followed by the Syrian refugees since they were all French or European citizens. France has been pushing strongly for the tightening of controls on the borders of the Schengen Zone, including for EU citizens, as well as for sharing information among EU member states on EU citizens re-entering the Zone from outside or returning after periods spent in the Middle East.

Attention has turned to what the attacks may mean for further European integration and what they say about the radicalisation of some young Europeans of particularly North African origin. It was reported this week that some Eastern European states are now refusing to abide by EU agreements on accepting further Syrian refugees and are introducing de facto controls for EU citizens at their borders.

In the French press, commentators have been addressing the issue of radicalisation from a variety of angles. According to Farhad Khosrokhavar, a Franco-Iranian sociologist and specialist in Islamist radicalisation, writing in the mass-circulation magazine Télérama this week, “at least five thousand Europeans have gone to fight in Syria, including 1,500 French young people. Many of these will come back traumatised and carry out acts of violence in France not for religious reasons but for reasons of profound mental destabilisation.”

“There is a jihadist reserve army in Europe, whose members are the deprived young people of the poor estates and poor inner cities,” he wrote in Le Monde last week. “These young people are motivated by hatred of the Europe that gave birth to them and more or less failed to give them an education.”

Interviewed by Le Monde last weekend, the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, perhaps the continent’s leading living philosophical thinker, said that this was the moment for Europeans “to remember the on-going and unresolved conflicts in the Middle East,” which, he felt, lay behind the Paris attacks.

“The absence of hope for the future that afflicts the younger generations of the countries [of the Middle East], who thirst for a better life and for recognition, is at least in part the result of Western policies” in the region, he said.

“I very much hope that the French people will now show the world the way forward, as they did after the Charlie Hebdo attacks” in January. They should be careful not “to sacrifice on the altar of security the democratic virtues of an open society, including individual liberty, tolerance of different ways of living and a readiness to see things from other people’s point of view,” Habermas said.

“But drawing attention to problems of integration and failures of social modernisation does not exempt the authors of these crimes of their responsibility for them.”

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