NARCO Analysis: Paris Attacks & their Aftermath

Friday, January 9, 2015

Despite French President François Hollande’s professed shock, and without intending to diminish the tragedy of Wednesday’s terror attack in Paris and the seriousness of the ongoing crisis, those of us at the intersection of France, North Africa, and Islamist extremist violence were not very much surprised by what has transpired.

While it is tempting to portray the Charlie Hebdo attack and its aftermath as an aberration, France has a long history of terrorist violence within its borders. In 1995 there was a series of bombings in Paris subway stations and several other bombings or attempted bombings elsewhere in France. The year before, an Air France plane was hijacked in Algiers and flown to Marseilles. More recently, Toulouse witnessed an active shooter incident in 2012. Why France has a terrorism problem is complicated. In part it has to do with how it has managed its colonial legacy both domestically and overseas. An additional part has to do with the state’s complicated and uneven official embrace of secularism (laïcité). And it has to do with the population and government’s discomfort with France’s shifting demographics and economic prospects.

To be sure, the Charlie Hebdo murders initially appear to be a departure from previous terrorist attacks. Past attacks were indiscriminate. The attacks were more symbolic than strategic – claiming the lives of random victims in order to sow fear. In Wednesday’s attack, trained gunmen cased a target and murdered specific individuals. However, if it turns out to be true that one of Wednesday’s shooters had connections with the Groupe Islamique Armé (the GIA or the Armed Islamic Group, which emerged in the context of Algeria’s Islamist insurgency in 1992), then the attack does not appear to be a new direction, but rather the revival of an old tactic. The GIA was responsible for the murders of scores of artists, novelists, musicians, lawyers, school teachers, journalists, and doctors. For Algerians in Algeria, the Charlie Hebdo attack was all too familiar and likely stirred horrific memories.

It is difficult to anticipate the full implications of this week’s events for Europe, but at the very least the attackers showed that it could be done and it could be done successfully. This could lead to an uptick in similar style attacks over the next several months in France but also in Belgium. The attack also raises some fundamental questions about what went wrong. How did an individual who was so well known to security and intelligence services successfully attack a site that had been targeted by Islamist extremists groups in the past? When the dust settles, there will undoubtedly be an investigation into where the system failed. The results will ultimately yield a stronger and more effective approach to counter-terrorism in France.

The attacks have few implications for North Africa itself. On the one hand, North African security services operate with a lot more leeway than those in Europe. In some instances, this means that they are able to prevent many attacks from happening. (It appears that Algerian security services may have warned their French counterparts about an attacked planned for either 6 or 7 January.) On the other hand, the murder of journalists, politicians, activists, and artists is sadly nothing new in North Africa: on the same day that the Charlie Hebdo attack was unfolding, two Tunisian journalists were killed in Libya.

I would just like to conclude by categorically rejecting the notion that what happened in Paris is part of any “clash of civilizations.” First, those who carry out these kinds of attacks are a tiny group of delusional nihilists. While they are lethal, their numbers are negligible. Second, to say that “civilizations are clashing” is to grant the perpetrators of these attacks a legitimacy that they do not deserve.

Obviously, we will be monitoring events as they develop with particular attention paid to any implications for Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.


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