A coordinated shooting rampage with automatic weapons, the deadliest attack in France in decades that targeted everyday activities around Paris, has left 127 dead and many hundreds wounded.
President Hollande has called it “terror of an unprecedented scale” and put France on the highest alert. For the first time since WWII, national emergency was imposed, borders were closed and defence forces mobilised.
The Islamic State, that has claimed responsibility for the attacks, has in one stroke shown it can choose the place and time it will engage in such terrorist attacks. The late night attacks bring attention to some fundamental issues.
First, the terrorists can set the agenda at their own will and carry out ruthless attacks. Second, it has brought into question the open border policy of the European Union, where entry into one Schengen country allows the individual mobility across the other countries without any additional passport checks.
Third, the IS outrage shows the tactical shift in its strategy to attack targets outside the Middle East, thereby expanding the area of engagement. Fourth, it has increased the collateral for the West, by targeting large-scale civilian numbers.
Fifth, in light of the refugee crisis in the Middle East and the influx of a large number of refugees into Europe, it has drawn attention to how terrorists could gain easy access to European countries. The scale of the attacks shows the IS is in a position to do well-planned coordinated strikes and this has revealed the vulnerability of European cities.
French intelligence is considered to be one of the best, so it comes as a shock that despite being on high alert after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, the French intelligence missed out on leads to what unfolded on Friday.
This is more alarming given that President Hollande was in the sports stadium where suicide bombings took place and he had to be evacuated. The number of causalities would have been higher had grenades been used inside the stadium.
Growing religious extremism and radicalisation due to conflict in the Middle East, Africa and more immediately in Syria, have all contributed to the vulnerability of people everywhere.
American President Obama in his speech said the attacks were an “outrageous attempt to terrorise innocent civilians”. While pledging the US government’s assistance to France, he further said: “This is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values we share.”
This statement has even more meaning given that France is fighting alongside the US in Syria in taking down the IS. As the French police and military track the escaped accomplices and secure Paris, the attacks have once again shown that terrorists can strike at will and, while on the one hand, the liberal values of the West are challenged, they also draw attention to the foreign policies of countries fighting the terrorist groups in the Middle East and how global security needs a new agenda setting today.
(Professor Ummu Salma Bava is professor, European Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)