April 18, 2017

Lost in Reaction: The French War on Terror

The lights of the Eiffel Tower are switched off at midnight in solidarity with the city of London following a terror attack on March 22, 2017.
The lights of the Eiffel Tower are switched off at midnight in solidarity with the city of London following a terror attack on March 22, 2017.

The newly elected French president will inherit a difficult security situation. A state of emergency has been in effect ever since the outrageous terrorist actions of November 2015 and is due to remain in force until at least next July.

The violent acts of the past two years have led to a noxious conflation of Islam and security in the public debate, while France’s continuing military involvement in the Middle East and North Africa also contributes to the high terrorist threat level. The debate over secularism and Islam has stiffened while positions are becoming worryingly polarized. As former Defence and Foreign Affairs Minister Alain Juppé argued last September during the run-up to the presidential primary held by the centre-right Republicans party, the debate over Islam has created a disproportionate sense of hysteria, and could even lead to civil war.

This type of divisive situation is precisely the objective of terrorists who abusively invoke Islam. Their doctrine is straightforward, holding that violent actions are meant to divide multicultural societies by exacerbating existing pressure points in order to push for a war of civilizations. It is hoped that doing so would undermine the overall commitment of western countries in the affairs of the Middle East, leading them to drop their support for what the doctrine considers religiously unworthy regimes in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Islamist extremists could then have a free hand to implement their own interpretation of Sharia law, toppling those “apostate” regimes and establishing a caliphate. In their response to terrorism, the French authorities unfortunately played exactly according to the script.

Misunderstanding the threat

Three days after the November Paris attacks and the enacting of a state of emergency, President Hollande declared to Parliament that a “jihadist army” had committed “acts of war” against the country, its values and way of life. 10,000 troops were immediately deployed in the streets, and Hollande announced that military operations in Iraq and Syria against the so-called Islamic State would be intensified. Prime Minister Manuel Valls went further at the 2016 Munich Security Conference, when he explained that these killings brought France and the whole of Europe into a lasting state of “war”, while the threat of terrorism stemmed from the “heart” of our societies.

According to the French authorities’ rhetoric, against all odds, it took a group of only twelve people—three attackers in January and nine in November—to bring France to a state of war. This is the pervasive nature of terrorism, where the actual consequences matter less than the psychological impact. The true achievement of terrorism lies within the attention and coverage it gets and in the type of reaction it triggers. France’s militarized response is a typical example of the difficulty of strategically understanding the real threat behind terrorism. Large scale military gestures, war rhetoric, and states of emergency are part of a counter-productive attitude that only validates extremist propaganda and boosts recruitment.

The doctrine depicts terrorists as “Knights under the Prophet’s Banner”. Ayman Al-Zawahiri’s foundational text portrays terrorist killers as soldiers of the faith, giving them a warrior’s legitimacy. Extremist propaganda also routinely misuses traditional notions of Islam for self-validation. Stamping its murderers as fighters for “jihad” is a gross distortion of a term that has a positive connotation in Islam – as it primarily refers to an individual’s inner struggle towards further piety. Is there a better external justification for their propaganda than the French President referring to a “jihadist army”? The perversity of a militaristic reaction to terrorism is that it effectively confirms the extremists’ belief in the sanctity and legitimacy of their cause.

Declaring war on terrorism is the very defeat

If a powerful nation declares war on terrorism, it is already strategically defeated. Terrorists have nothing to lose, and relatively limited means at their disposal. In military terms, this militarized reaction constitutes a failure of imagination as to what the goals of the enemy are— leading to inappropriate postures as a result. Militaristic discourses from the government spread further tension and fear among society, while bringing the unavoidable question: who is our enemy? Collective hysterias around the Islamic veil or the peculiar controversy over “burkinis” in the summer of 2016 depict a heated and restless attitude towards Islam itself. A declaration of war allows terrorist acts to have resonance and fulfils the intent behind them. A society at war is increasingly terrorized, while public debate is getting more tensed and violent. Open and democratic societies are a particularly soft target since their experience of war has vanished, causing violent acts to be especially disruptive.

The overreaction is widely shared across the political spectrum, even forming a consensus among presidential candidates. Major parties merely propose that the domestic military deployment should be regularly reassessed according to evolving threat assessments – only Marine Le Pen’s National Front calls to make the reinforced posture permanent. There is surprisingly little discussion over the strategic reasoning of France’s anti-terrorism campaign. A real reflection at the strategic level is desperately needed in order to avoid playing our part in the terrorists’ script and thus escape this perverse cycle. The tense political climate, which is marked by outbursts of xenophobic, religious intolerance has however made the likelihood of such a reflection exceedingly remote.

Lost in reaction

Terrorism is a methodology of warfare that is both symbolic and psychological in its essence. Overstating the response will not alter the determination of potential terrorists to commit their crimes. The biggest achievement of the twelve murderers has been to push the country into a state of war. Terrorists do not have the traditional military power that could effectively endanger the country’s existential security. The threat posed by the so-called Islamic State and its affiliates to world powers remains of a limited magnitude. This is why terror lies in reaction. Twelve people have been allowed to trigger war, to engender a massive and costly military deployment with no end in sight and to cause an exceptional legal regime to remain in place indefinitely.

If there must be war, it should be a struggle in which the weapons are ideas and words. It calls for a strategy based on a careful sense of proportion. Effectively countering contemporary terrorism would require treating its actions as mere crimes, not as attacks on the whole of society, democracy, or our way of life. Waging war on a method is a contradiction in terms. It is senseless to think that a military response can put an end to terrorism, no matter which remote terrorist networks are annihilated in the sands of Iraq and Syria. A more sustainable response to terrorism could be to avoid giving it the resonance it craves for and to start reflecting on a smarter policy of resilience.