Here’s why France is on the frontline of the war with Islamic State
At least 84, perhaps up to 100 people, have been killed in the horrifying attack in Nice, France.
In the latest of a series of terrorist attacks in the country over recent years, a truck mowed down crowds of people who had gathered in celebration. Automatic gunfire from the truck killed further civilians as it ploughed through the crowd.
Muslim friends of mine in France and other parts of Europe were at a loss to convey the terror and confusion experienced by their own friends and family who witnessed the carnage.
They described the unfathomable shock of seeing bloodied bodies scattered across the ground, like a warzone. One said that members of her family were at the scene celebrating Bastille Day with their fellow French citizens. They were in Nice on holiday and could not believe what had happened. They spoke repeatedly of bodies everywhere, many of them wearing headscarves.
So far, facts are thin. Police sources confirmed that the driver, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, was a native Tunisian but a French resident, a conclusion drawn from identity papers found in the vehicle. The suspect was known to authorities, though only for theft and thuggery, not terrorism.
Some witnesses said they heard the driver shout "Allah hu Akbar" during the attack.
Officials said that a cache of weapons found in the truck were actually fake replica weapons, but the driver had used an automatic pistol.
So what can we infer with some degree of certainty?
Pieces of the puzzle
Firstly, Islamic State (IS) has not formally claimed responsibility for this attack, suggesting the attack wasn't directed from IS headquarters. It was, however, celebrated with glee on IS-linked social media accounts.
Secondly, despite this, the lone-wolf hypothesis is not plausible. Even though the driver had stashed replica weapons and fake grenades in his truck, the fact that he had a rapid-fire pistol indicates that he had some access to a criminal supply network. The automatic pistol is often inaccessible to the average petty thief, which means he had connections to a group dealing in black-market arms.
He also, clearly, knew how to fire an automatic weapon, suggesting some degree – even if minimal – of firearms training. He probably had accomplices.
Thirdly, President Francois Hollande’s declaration – “We will continue striking those who attack us on our own soil” – is a not-so-veiled reference to France’s involvement in air strikes in Syria against IS. Hollande’s statement reflects what the French security services already believe to be the strongest hypothesis: that even if this was not IS-directed, it was IS-inspired.
Fourthly, French authorities knew an attack of this sort was going to happen. For some years, of course, al-Qaeda affiliated groups and IS have repeatedly urged their followers around the world to use trucks and cars as weapons. But the French have had more specific intelligence.
On Tuesday, the parliamentary testimony of the chief of France’s domestic security service – DGSI general director Patrick Calvar – was published in a 300-page official report. In his testimony, given on 24 May, Calvar warned: “I'm convinced they'll go to booby-trapped vehicles and bombs, thus upping their power.”
Fifthly, as the latest in a string of escalating terrorist attacks on France, the Nice attack must be seen as part of a continuum of terrorist violence, not simply as a single episode. In that context, whatever the French state response to previous terrorist attacks – the state of emergency, the escalation of air strikes in Syria, and so on – has, without mincing words, failed dismally.
Sixthly, we can be reasonably sure that the Nice attack, like the attacks before it, has been incubated by an IS-inspired network in France with access to criminal black-market supply lines that remains entirely operational, despite the French government’s efforts.
This fact, alone, opens up a wider geopolitical can of worms, leading to our seventh point of reasonable certainty: to understand how and why this network has been able to continue existing with its tentacles reaching into a minority of the French Muslim communities. It must be remembered that many of the victims of the Nice attacks were French Muslims who despise IS, but we cannot but recognise that there is real, localised and regional problem here.
The ‘war on Islamic State’ you’ve never heard of
Hollande’s reference to IS in Syria, in this regard, misses the mark because France is not just waging war in Syria. France is waging war much closer to home, precisely where this criminal black market supply network links up: North Africa.
This is the eighth point: the persistence with which France is being targeted can only be explained by the escalation of a secretive war with IS being carried out just across the Mediterranean in the Maghreb.
Over the past half decade, Islamist militant factions affiliated to both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda have dramatically expanded their foothold in North Africa. Spurred by the vacuum left from the aborted NATO war on Libya, which successfully ousted deposed Muammar Gaddafi but left the country in a state of internecine civil war, Islamist groups have found a new base there.
Libya is now the perfect springboard for Islamist militants to expand their reach across North Africa and the Sahel.
The result is patchwork of rapidly growing cells of jihadists loyal to multiple terrorist franchises: Ansar al-Shariah, Al Mourabitoun, Boko Haram, al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, and Islamic State.
The militants have also set up shop in Mali, even more so in the wake France’s intervention there. Launched in 2013 to roll back an Islamist militant uprising in the north, the intervention has converted into a semi-colonial arrangement.
France now has a permanent military presence in Mali, but as Human Rights Watch (HRW) finds in its World Report 2016, security continues to deteriorate with increased attacks from Islamist groups and abuses by Mali government forces. The French military presence has seen an intensification of Islamic violence, which has “increased in the north and spread into central and southern Mali,” according to HRW.
But the brutality of the France-backed Mali regime has only served to vindicate the Islamists.
France’s war has swept across the region. There are now about 3,500 French troops stationed across military bases in Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad, which is the command and control hub for a regional American-French military-security complex.
In addition to the French, US Special Operations forces are engaged in a secret programme to establish elite counterterrorism units in Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Libya.
But as noted in Foreign Affairs by Nathaniel Powell, a specialist in the history of French military interventions, this operation “may be doing more harm than good, since it provides crucial support to the repressive governments that are at the heart of the Sahel’s problems”.
Before IS: Destabilising the Sahel
The US-led security architecture was established across the Sahel long before the rise of IS. In fact, US involvement has significantly expanded the Islamist hold in the region.
Professor Jeremy Keenan, a world authority on the Sahara-Sahel region and Visiting Professor, School of Law, Queen Mary University London, points out that this security architecture, now under the jurisdiction of the Pentagon’s Africom, was set-up over a decade ago in the form of a “cooperation agreement on counter-terrorism” between Algeria, Niger, Nigeria and Chad. The agreement “effectively joined the two oil-rich sides of the Sahara together in a complex of security arrangements whose architecture is American”.
Intelligence documents, as Keenan and others have documented, prove that at this time the US, British and French were well aware that Algerian military intelligence had played a double game, covertly financing al-Qaeda affiliated militants as a mechanism to consolidate its domestic control and project power abroad.
In January 2013, as France launched its war in Mali, former National Security Agency counterintelligence officer John Schindler said there was “ample evidence” that Algerian intelligence “maintains control of at least some of the jihadist bandit-groups operating under the rubric of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) across the Sahel”.
According to Keenan, who advises the US State Department and British Foreign Office on regional security issues, this extensive support for regional al-Qaeda bandits spilled over into what became the Islamist uprising in Mali.
But instead of cracking down hard on Algeria’s state-sponsorship of Islamist terror, the US and British turned a blind eye, and the French invaded Mali.
In the wake of the Anglo-French military presence across the region, far from being quelled, Islamists are having a field day. Ongoing secretive operations and draconian abuses, along with extensive support for repressive regimes, one of which – Algeria – directly sponsored some of the Islamist factions running riot across the region, serves to stoke local grievances but does little to shut down the terror networks.
The French are trying to patrol a smuggling route to Libya, which is a major regional black market weapons hub controlled by Islamist groups. But the area of operations spans a whopping 15,000 square miles. No wonder these operations have few concrete successes.
As foreign fighters pour in, recruited to various competing groups, the American-French trans-Sahel military operation is fighting a losing battle.
Ongoing grievances in the region are a powerful recruiting sergeant for these terrorist groups. Corrupt governments and intensifying poverty, amidst burgeoning young populations, have created a groundswell of resentment against the status quo. In this vacuum, the preaching of religious clerics aligned to al-Qaeda and IS has an increasingly willing audience.
The US-French support for the region’s repressive governments, in the name of counter-terrorism, stokes further resentment.
This leads to the ninth fact: inside France, these grievances are mirrored as the French security state has disproportionately targeted ordinary French Muslims during its now-extended state of emergency.
A February briefing by Amnesty International found that the emergency measures “are implemented in a discriminatory manner, specifically targeting Muslims, often on the basis of their beliefs and religious practices rather than any concrete evidence of criminal behaviour”.
More than 3,242 house searches had been conducted and over 400 assigned residence orders imposed – with little, if any, tangible outcome in terms of intelligence successes against terrorism. Mosques had been shut down despite police reports indicating “no element justifying the opening of an investigation”.
Instead, the French government has “trampled on the rights of hundreds of men, women and children, leaving them traumatised and stigmatised,” said the Amnesty report.
As the Nice attack proves, this draconian approach has done nothing to help French authorities stop terrorism.
The result is that already marginalised Muslim communities in France are experiencing routine state abuses. For most of the people in these communities, this stops there.
But for a minority – perhaps like the Nice attacker – state abuses lend credence to the claims of al-Qaeda and IS-sympathisers: claims that Muslims are not welcome in the West, that they are obliged to join the jihad against the West, that they must migrate to the Islamic State – and that if they don’t, they are apostates who are as worthy of death as their non-Muslim counterparts.
Our tenth point of fact, then, is that this escalating war, occurring not just in Syria, but stretching from Libya across North Africa, is an ideal recruiting sergeant for the ideology of terror that animates these jihadists: if you are not with us, you are against us.
It is critical to remember what this means: IS wants to destroy the grey zone, the arenas of multi-ethnic, multi-faith solidarity, within both the Muslim and Western worlds. Muslims who continue to partake of the grey zone are deemed apostates who, in particular, must be made an example of. And they must be made an example of especially while partaking of the grey zone – exactly as happened in the Nice attack, where people of all backgrounds and various faiths, and none, were celebrating together.
This leads me to my final point: we must not allow IS to win by endangering the grey zone ourselves. In such a time of crisis, a reactionary approach may seem attractive, but the past few years proves that it bears little fruit. In reality, the grey zone represents precisely what distinguishes "us" from the terrorists: we love each other, no matter what. And we will stand together, no matter what.
- Nafeez Ahmed PhD, is an investigative journalist, international security scholar and bestselling author who tracks what he calls the "crisis of civilization." He is a winner of the Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for his Guardian reporting on the intersection of global ecological, energy and economic crises with regional geopolitics and conflicts. He has also written for The Independent, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Scotsman, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, Prospect, New Statesman, Le Monde diplomatique, New Internationalist. His work on the root causes and covert operations linked to international terrorism officially contributed to the 9/11 Commission and the 7/7 Coroner’s Inquest.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: French Republican guards placing the French flag at half-staff at the Elysee presidential Palace, in Paris, on 15 July, 2016 as French government announced a three days of national mourning after the attack in Nice (AFP).
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.