The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
“If you can kill an American or European infidel, especially the spiteful and cursed French,” said Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, spokesman for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), last September, “kill them in any way possible.” In stating a clear preference for terrorist attacks in France, Adnani became part of a proud terrorist tradition.
Last week’s atrocities in Paris, which left 17 dead, were not the first rounds of terror brought to France by Islamists. In fact, such attacks in France have killed over a dozen and wounded hundreds since 1995. And this is not just a French story. It has implications for the entire West.
Historically, France has had a particularly hard time integrating its Muslim community—the largest in Europe at approximately five million, or 7.5 percent of the French population. In the 1990s, the issue was Algeria. As the vicious civil war there raged, France's historical connections to the country brought the violence to its doorstep. In those days, Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front looked on course to win the popular vote. Algeria’s secular military leadership, which many believed was propped up by France, cancelled the vote.
Then, on Christmas Eve, 1994, four Algerian jihadists aligned with the brutal Armed Islamic Groupe (GIA) hijacked a flight from Algiers headed for Paris. During a three-day ordeal, the group killed three civilians before French security forces raided the plane (which had eventually landed in Marseille) and killed the gunmen. Then, three months after that, the GIA bombed the Saint-Michel station on the Paris Metro, killing eight.
Eventually, the GIA imploded, hemorrhaging support thanks to its gruesome behavior during the decade-long civil war. The militant networks did not just disappear; they dispersed to other cities. For example, in December 2000, ten Algerian and French-Algerian militants largely based in Frankfurt attempted to blow up a Christmas market in Strasbourg. Other terrorists went to London, where radical mosques provided receptive platforms for an influx of former GIA fighters and other Algerian immigrants.
After the 9/11 attacks, however, things got much harder for Islamist radicals. In the United Kingdom, for example, major London-based Islamist figures connected to events in Algeria were arrested. This included Abu Doha, who was tied to a cell in Frankfurt, and Abu Qatada, who in 1995 had issued a fatwa legitimizing jihadists’ killing of women and children during the Algerian civil war. Kamel Bourgass, an Algerian who had left France for the United Kingdom, was eventually convicted for a plot involving ricin and the murder of a police officer who had attempted to arrest him.
Meanwhile, mainstays of the French jihadist scene, such as the Courtailler brothers—Jerome and David, who were linked to a variety of other extremists across the world—were jailed on terrorism-related charges. The French authorities also successfully uncovered several domestic terrorist plans. For example, a plot to blow up the U.S. embassy and cultural centre in France was thwarted. A key figure convicted in this plot, the French-Algerian terrorist Djamel Beghal, had longstanding ties to al Qaeda. While in prison, Beghal would allegedly go on to be a key radicalizing influence on Cherif Kouachi, one of the terrorists responsible for the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and Amedy Coulibaly, who killed hostages at a kosher grocery shop the next day.
Yet no matter how many terrorists were jailed, problems continued to pop up. In March 2012, the Algerian terrorist Mohammed Merah killed three soldiers and four Jewish civilians in Montauban and Toulouse, both in the south of France, before he was killed in a police shoot-out. Militants connected to al Qaeda had trained Merah in Pakistan. Less than a year later, in May 2013, Alexandre Dhaussy, a French convert to Islam, stabbed a French soldier in the neck in Paris, in what was acknowledged to be a terrorist act.
Terrorist threats increased throughout 2014. Ibrahim Boudina—a French national from Algeria who had recently returned from Syria—was arrested in the French Riviera in February. At the time, he was in possession of explosives, nuts, bolts, nails, and bomb-making instructions. In May, another French national of Algerian origin who had spent time in Syria, Mehdi Nemmouche, shot and killed four people at the Jewish museum in Brussels. And shortly before Christmas, a French citizen wielding a foot long knife and shouting “Allahu Akbar” attacked three policemen at a police station in Tours, central France, before he was shot dead.
Yet France’s most deadly, devastating attack was yet to come.
By now, the details of that massacre are well known, and many European countries have paid close attention for lessons about how to prevent the next attack.
If anything, France provides an example of why there is no one approach to integration that can fully eliminate the dangers of Islamist ideology. Unlike the United Kingdom, which favors a multicultural model that essentially encourages immigrants to retain the cultural practices and values of their homeland, France expects, first and foremost, commitment to the principles of the Republic.
But neither way has proven successful. Les banlieues, the impoverished suburbs that house large numbers of Muslims and where youth unemployment can run to over 40 percent, have become symbols of France's failed approach. The riots in these urban centers in October and November of 2005 were a warning of how quickly simmering discontent can turn into violence. But the United Kingdom, too, faced riots across the northern parts of the country in the summer of 2001. These revealed problems that can occur with a lack of integration and a breakdown in community cohesion, this time between white and Asian communities.
Recent events in France have also forced the West to acknowledge the increasing violence against Jews in Europe. Anti-semitic comedians, such as Dieudonné M'bala M'bala, have become popular in France. Anti-semitism has become such a problem that Bernard Cazeneuve, France's interior minister, vowed to make the issue a “national cause.” According to a recent European Jewish Congress study, in 2013, more anti-semitic attacks occurred in France than in any other country. Anti-semitism is undeniably a part of jihadist ideology; terrorists in France have targeted Jews on multiple occasions.
It is also clear that those predisposed to supporting jihadism will always find a cause. Commentators in the United States and United Kingdom often cite the decision to invade Iraq and the subsequent war as a root cause of radicalization in those two countries. France did not support the war, yet that has provided it with precious little credit among jihadis. Recent history has shown that there will always be a new cause for jihadist sympathizers to rail against. If it is not France’s involvement in the Libya intervention in 2011, then it is its invasion of Mali in January 2013; if it is not foreign policy, it is domestic; if it is not banning head scarves in public, it is drawing insulting cartoons.
That is why, even as they look to the recent attacks for lessons, governments cannot allow them to dictate policies. Terrorists will always find a way to justify their attacks. The liberal West must choose whether to accommodate—tread softly, don’t talk about the problem, don't offend—likely to little avail, or stay true to its founding values.