On Friday, France witnessed its third major terrorist strike in less than two years. A truck mowing down 84 people in Nice followed the attack on the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in January 2015 and the near-simultaneous raids on a football stadium, concert hall and restaurants last November.
The scale of casualties, the chilling mode of execution and the frequency of attacks prompts questions about why France has become such a vulnerable target. However, understanding motivations for terror attacks is a complex subject that has no scholarly consensus.
Experts generally point to the following reasons:
First is the availability of French extremists radicalised by the so-called Islamic State, the terror group that has ravaged Syria and Iraq since 2014.
According to the United Nations , the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and the al-Nusra Front have managed to attract recruits from over 80 countries; around 1,400 are from France and many are believed to have returned home to fight the French State.
Secondly, is a strong ideological impetus for such an attack.
According to anthropologist Scott Atran, attacks in France are consistent with ISIS’ head, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s call to his followers to “erupt volcanoes of jihad everywhere”. He also points to an ISIS manual titled The Management of Savagery / Chaos which talks of hitting soft targets, striking when potential victims have their guard down and the need to draw the West into a direct war through terror attacks. Atran writes that “a key tactic in this strategy is to inspire sympathisers abroad to violence: Do what you can, with whatever you have, wherever you are, whenever possible”. He says ISIS radicals are driven by “sacred values” with notions of overturning world order and establishing a caliphate that appeals to young people seeking purpose, significance and brotherhood.
Thirdly, and more immediately, the Nice attack could also have been a way to deter more French airstrikes in Syria.
A day before the attack, which coincided with Bastille Day (French National Day), President Francois Hollande announced that France would be redeploying the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier later this year “to strike and destroy those who aggressed us here”. The carrier had previously conducted airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria from November through to March.
Apart from such worldview-oriented and tactical considerations, what happened in Nice is likely linked to a fraught social climate in France that has developed over decades.
Religious extremists are able to exploit the deep sense of discrimination and exclusion that minorities experience in France. Waves of immigrants from former French colonies in North Africa and West Asia were, for instance, settled in “underfunded, distant suburbs” , called banlieues, which have come to connote slums marked by poverty and lack of opportunity. The discontent of young French citizens of Arab or African-origin is well-known. The French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has referred to the “territorial, social, ethnic apartheid” in France and mentioned that people face “social misery and discrimination on a daily basis due to having the wrong name, the wrong skin colour, or even simply for being a woman”.
“We have to look at the reality of France in the face”, he said in January 2015.
Commentators also say that France’s state secularism compounds the problems that economic exclusion creates.
The European nation is known for its anti-clerical tradition and its habit of ridiculing religion . It has a long tradition of keeping church and State apart . In 2004, a ban was imposed on veils, crosses and yarmulkes, and in 2010, the Senate banned the public wearing of veils, including the niqab. These have been the kind of symbolic issues that extremists have been able to capitalise on in the backdrop of impoverishment.
Recent actions by the government have worsened social tensions.
A state of emergency was imposed last November that empowered local officials to impose curfews, limit freedom of movement, put suspects under arrest at will and search houses without warrant. The government is under a lot of criticism that these powers have been misused. According to one account , “there is mounting evidence to suggest that security forces are overstepping their bounds, implicating people with no connection to terrorist groups and targeting others based on little more than mosque affiliation or social media posts.” Ethnic profiling by security forces has reportedly intensified which inevitably feeds extremist agendas.
Groups like ISIS stage such horrific attacks at sensitive junctures to provoke extreme counter-reaction from the State, using this to recruit more young people and further their apocalyptic project.