More than 120 people have been killed and nearly 200 injured in multiple attacks by eight terrorists in Paris on Friday evening.
The security agencies, which have been on heightened alert since the dramatic terrorist assault on the offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo in January, seem to have been outflanked by the terrorists, suggesting the attacks were carefully planned and coordinated.
There could be several explanations for such a massive terrorist attack in Paris.
The number of people of Islamic faith in France is probably the largest in Europe. While the majority is reasonably well integrated, a substratum of disaffected youth is a social reality. The earlier terrorist attacks in France have been the handiwork of extremist Muslim youth.
Amongst the European countries, the largest number of those who have gone to Syria to fight alongside the Islamic State are from France. French authorities have expressed fears that some of them will find their way back to France, well-trained in the use of arms and fired by extremist ideologies to carry out terrorist attacks.
French policies in North Africa and West Asia can be linked to the terrorist threat it faces. France was in the forefront in western intervention in Libya. It has intervened in Syria politically and militarily. It has been vociferous in its opposition to Bashar Assad, and along with its western partners, has actively supported forces seeking his ouster, some with extremist affiliations.
Many external observers have been surprised by French support for regime change policies in the Southern Mediterranean area. France has traditionally been seen as more independent-minded and pragmatic in its foreign policy choices, but it changed tack and aligned its policies more firmly with the US and NATO when President Sarkozy took power in 2007 and has continued along the same lines even after he was voted out in 2012.
France has justified its interventions as an obligation that falls on it as a responsible member of the international community to combat the global threat of terrorism. Its permanent membership of the Security Council and its past as a colonial power in North Africa and Syria would explain its more robust approach. Germany, by comparison, has been much more circumspect.
The terrorists who have perpetrated the latest attack were Muslims, some were heard shouting Allah-o-Akbar and justifying their act as a riposte to what was being done in Syria and Iraq, specifically mentioning President Hollande by name. They spoke perfect French, which further confirms their identity as French Muslims determined to resort to terrorism to express their political and social resentment against their own country.
These attacks will have an impact on internal policies in France. The anti-immigration sentiment in France is already gaining strength and fuelling the rise of the right-wing Front National led by Marine Le Pen, representing a challenge to France’s two principal political parties. This challenge is likely to become stronger, though there will always be strong voices in France that will caution against anti-Muslim sentiments spreading across a society that is already diverse and could risk undermining the values of the French Republic.
These attacks highlight the dangers of a blow back in Europe of interventionist policies in the Islamic world that have caused massive instabilities and human disasters.
As it is, Europe is facing a huge problem of refugees from the Islamic world. This is shaking some of the structures on which the European Union has been built. France has closed its borders temporarily in the wake of the terrorist attacks. It is not unlikely that the existing open border regime in the Schengen area may have to reviewed.
The Climate Change Conference in Paris later this month will now require draconian security precautions, putting an additional burden on French security.
For countries far away, including India, there are lessons to be learned from these attacks, even though we have had the experience of Mumbai in 2008. Successful attacks like these provide inspiration to others. This accentuates the problem of “lone wolves” perpetrating mayhem without being detected by preventive surveillance by agencies.
India is vulnerable, as we have a country next door that is involved in terrorism for years. The Taliban is raising its head in Afghanistan again. Our vigilance levels have to go up.
Kanwal Sibal served as a former Foreign Secretary of India and also served as India’s Ambassador to France.