Half of all French soldiers are now deployed on streets at home

The Guardian reports: After last year’s terrorist attacks on Paris, the president, François Hollande, declared that France was at war and swiftly saturated the streets of main cities with soldiers standing guard in full military fatigues to make people feel more secure. The now permanent presence of thousands of soldiers in khaki across the capital and major cities has transformed the image and mood of France.

Operation Sentinelle, in which combat troops patrol streets and protect key sites – from synagogues to art galleries, nursery schools to mosques and Métro stations – is the army’s first wide-scale peacetime military operation on mainland France.

Sentinelle was launched after the massacre at Charlie Hebdo magazine and a kosher supermarket in Paris in January 2015. But after November’s attacks that killed 130 people, Hollande increased the presence to 10,000 troops across the nation, with about 6,500 of them in the Paris area.

But while 79% of French people approve of Sentinelle in a country with a very positive view of its army, political opposition on the right and left has begun to question not the soldiers themselves but the government’s use of the military. Political commentators and ex-military figures have started to query whether deploying soldiers in what one rightwing senator called a mere security guard role is an efficient use of a highly trained – and now highly stretched – army.

The constant presence of camouflage uniforms everywhere from quiet neighbourhood streets to Métro carriages, patrolling past schools at home-time or milling through markets, has transformed the cityscape – and the relationship of the French to their soldiers. People now bring hot drinks and food offerings to men in military fatigues at the end of their street. The elite troops of the foreign legion are invited into a barmitzvah in a street of synagogues that they normally guard. There are now military medals for serving on the streets of French towns and many more young people applying to join the army.

“It’s quite hard to know what to tell children already traumatised and confused by the terrorist attacks,” said the concierge at one central Paris building in a neighbourhood where soldiers are regularly posted. “My five-year-old daughter would shush me and try to hide whenever she saw a soldier. I asked her why. ‘They’re the killers!’ she said. I told her they weren’t at all, but she just replied: ‘But they’ve got guns!’” [Continue reading…]

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One woman helped the mastermind of the Paris attacks. The other turned him in

The Washington Post reports: All of Europe was looking for Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the planner of the Paris attacks, when two women approached his roadside hiding place, guided by the voice of someone secretly watching from a distance and giving directions by phone.

“Go forward. Walk. Stop,” the voice said. “He can see you. He’s coming.”

It was 9:30 p.m., two days after the bombings and shootings in November that left 130 people dead. France had closed its borders and launched a massive manhunt. But Abaaoud emerged from behind a bush and strolled toward the women as if there were nothing unusual about this rendezvous.

One of the women, Abaaoud’s cousin, jumped into his arms, saying, “Hamid, you’re alive!”

But her companion, who had come without knowing who they were to meet, felt a shudder of recognition. “I’d seen him on TV,” she later told police, referring to videos from Syria that showed Abaaoud dragging dead bodies behind a truck.

The meeting, which was described by the woman in an interview and confirmed in French investigative files obtained by The Washington Post, set in motion a three-day sequence that culminated in a raid on an apartment in Saint-Denis, north of Paris. Abaaoud, 28, was killed in that operation by authorities who subsequently learned that he was plotting additional attacks.

His plans were derailed largely because of his decision to involve two women whose impulses when faced with the choice of trying to help him or stop him were immediately at odds.

His cousin, a troubled 26-year-old woman named Hasna Aitboulahcen, helped Abaaoud elude authorities for days and died with him in the Saint-Denis apartment, where one of the cornered militants detonated a suicide bomb.

The other woman, who had served as a surrogate mother to Aitboulahcen for several years, secretly called and met with police, providing information that probably helped authorities stave off another wave of attacks.

The relationship between the two women in many ways reflects broader tensions in Muslim communities across Europe over interpretations of their religion, degrees of loyalty to their countries and the insidious appeal of the Islamic State.

In a Nov. 18 news conference, François Molins, the Paris prosecutor, said that a key witness helped identify Abaaoud on French territory and that investigators “were led to this apartment” by that crucial source. French police declined to elaborate or comment further on the case.

But until now, the public has been unaware that the critical tip in the hunt for Abaaoud came from a Muslim — one of millions who now face a backlash in Europe fueled by anger over the attacks in Paris and Brussels, as well as fear and resentment of a rising tide of refugees.

“It’s important the world knows that I am Muslim myself,” the woman said, citing that as a reason for being willing to speak to The Post. “It’s important to me that people know what Abaaoud and the others did is not what Islam is teaching.” [Continue reading…]

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Revelation on Brussels attackers fuels fears of new assaults

The New York Times reports: The announcement on Sunday that the plotters of last month’s Brussels terror attacks had originally intended to hit Paris again only heightened the concern among police and intelligence agencies that shadowy Islamic State networks could unleash new attacks at any time, not only in France and Belgium but in other European capitals.

As intelligence experts and officials took stock of what they have learned since the Nov. 13 assaults in and around Paris, which killed 130 people, several things have come into focus. The scale of the Islamic State’s operations in Europe are still not known, but they appear to be larger and more layered than investigators at first realized; if the Paris and Brussels attacks are any model, the plotters will rely on local criminal networks in addition to committed extremists.

Even as the United States, its allies and Russia have killed leaders of the Islamic State, and have rolled back some of the extremist organization’s gains on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State appears to be posing a largely hidden and lethal threat across much of Europe. [Continue reading…]

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How French secularism became fundamentalist

Robert Zaretsky writes: For nearly a century, laïcité [which originally assured “the liberty of conscience” for all French citizens] worked well enough. It ensured public space for both those who believed — not just Catholics and Protestants, but Jews as well — and those who did not. But with the 1980s and 1990s came a growing number of immigrants, most of whom were Muslim, from North Africa. And so a different kind of conflict between the French state and established religion began to take shape.

Emblematic of this new tension was a series of battles over a simple strip of clothing. In 1989, a few Muslim girls were expelled from school when they refused to take off their hijabs, or headscarves, which the principal believed was an assault on the secular character of public schools. Shortly after, the French administrative court, the Conseil d’État, ordered them to be reinstated. But two years after 9/11, when similar incidents were repeated at other schools, the court reversed its original finding. While all “ostentatious” signs of religious faith — be they Jewish yarmulkes or Sikh turbans — were declared verboten in public schools, everyone knew that the principal target of the law was the hijab.

In the subsequent sound and fury, the banner of laïcité was unfurled in ways that would surely have been unrecognizable to the 19th-century statesmen like Jules Ferry and Aristide Briand, who helped write the original law. The once-straightforward guarantees of “freedom of conscience” and “free exercise of religious faiths” — rooted in and restricted to the constitutions of the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Republics — were transformed under the forces of political passion and mounting existential anguish into the defining French values, and any form of retreat from a fundamentalist interpretation was a failure to defend the republic.

Today, public intellectuals like Alain Finkielkraut, Régis Debray, and Elisabeth Badinter, when discussing laïcité, invoke the very future of France. Badinter, a renowned feminist philosopher, as if in anticipation of the Charlie Hebdo editorial, declared in January that she was not afraid to be called an Islamophobe, arguing that accusations of racism are a weapon against secularism. In a recent essay on secularism, diversity, and national identity titled L’identité malheureuse (“Unhappy Identity”), Finkielkraut confounds myth with history when he declares his sympathy for those “who miss the good old days when native-born Frenchmen and women (Français de souche) mingled with their own kind and who are now shedding a tear over their sepia-colored France that has lost its homogeneity.”

The xenophobic and anti-immigration National Front, too, has weaponized laïcité, turning it into an ideological cudgel to be used against French Muslims. Last year, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the party’s rising star — and granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen — asserted that the National Front is “laïque,” or secular. Yet she then offered an interpretation of the state of religion in France that had very little to do with laïcité as most of the world understands it, exposing the cognitive dissonance shared by the extreme right and left: “If French Muslims wish to practice their faith, they need to accept the fact that they are doing so on soil that is culturally Christian. This means that they cannot have the same rank as the Christian religion.”

Then, last week, the minister for families, children, and women’s rights, Laurence Rossignol, lambasted fashion designers for offering lines of Islamic wear-inspired clothing, including the so-called “burkini,” a full-body bathing suit sold by Marks and Spencer. These brands, Rossignol declared, had “irresponsibly” lent their prestige to clothing designed to oppress women. As for those Muslim women who freely choose to wear religious garb, Rossignol shrugged her shoulders: “There were also American negroes who favored slavery.”

In a single phrase, Rossignol not only let drop a racial slur, but also let slip the implications of how she — a member of government — sees the meaning of laïcité today: No normal French woman, Rossignol seems to believe, would choose to wear Islamic dress as a sign of her religious faith. Tellingly, Rossignol’s use of the word “négre” sparked more outrage in the media than her claim that burkini-wearing women have no place in a truly secular society. [Continue reading…]

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Does ISIS even have a European strategy?

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Benjamin H. Friedman writes: With the bombers dead and investigations just a week old, the motives behind last week’s bombings in Brussels’ airport and metro will remain murky for some time. Of course, reporters and terrorism analysts have offered lots of speculation, much of it focused on how the attacks serve the agenda of ISIS’s leaders. That approach, I believe, overstates ISIS’s coherence and wisdom. If “ISIS” means the would-be state in Syria in Iraq, plus affiliated groups and clandestine networks of sympathizers, then it doesn’t have a strategy; it has strategies, often foolish ones.

Statements claiming responsibility for the attack, attributed to ISIS’s leadership in Syria, blame Belgium for joining in the war in Syria and Iraq and threaten coalition members with similar treatment. The attack, in other words, was meant to coerce foreign powers to quit making war on ISIS.

Those statements are indications that ISIS’s leaders didn’t know the particulars of the attack in advance, let alone direct it. Like some prior ISIS’s claims of reasonability for attacks, the statements seem to crib from media reports; they arrived hours after attacks without any detail unavailable in public. By claiming that the airport attackers “opened fire” with “automatic rifles,” the statements even repeat errors in initial reporting. [Continue reading…]

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How did we end up here?

Adam Shatz writes: In No Name in the Street, James Baldwin describes how, not long after he settled in France in 1948, he ‘had watched the police, one sunny afternoon, beat an old, one-armed Arab peanut vendor senseless in the streets, and I had watched the unconcerned faces of the French on the café terraces, and the congested faces of the Arabs.’ With a ‘generous smile’, Baldwin’s friends reassured him that he was different from the Arabs: ‘Le noir américain est très évolué, voyons!’ He found the response perplexing, given what he knew of French views about the United States, so he asked a ‘very cunning question’:

If so crude a nation as the United States could produce so gloriously civilised a creature as myself, how was it that the French, armed with centuries of civilised grace, had been unable to civilise the Arab?

The response was breathtakingly simple: ‘The Arabs did not wish to be civilised.’ They, the Arabs, had their own traditions, and ‘the Arab was always hiding something; you couldn’t guess what he was thinking and couldn’t trust what he was saying. And they had a different attitude toward women, they were very brutal with them, in a word they were rapists, and they stole, and they carried knives.’

Aside from ageing veterans of the French-Algerian war, no one in France talks about ‘the Arabs’ any longer. Instead they speak of ‘the Muslims’. But France’s Muslims are the descendants of that Arab peanut vendor – and, all too often, targets of the same racist intolerance. Like the racism Baldwin encountered among his Parisian friends, it often wears an ennobling mask: anti-terrorist, secular, feminist. [Continue reading…]

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Investigators believe at least 22 suspects are still at large following Brussels and Paris attacks

The Wall Street Journal reports: At least 22 radical Islamists from Europe linked to the terror network behind the Brussels and Paris attacks are suspected to be still at large, putting security services on high alert as they rush to prevent Islamic State from striking again in the region.

Many of the fugitives have been involved in previous Islamic State plots, officials say, and almost all of them have spent months or years fighting in Syria.

Interviews and confidential court documents seen by The Wall Street Journal portray the fugitives as part of an extensive web of young men who developed a deep hatred of the West after embracing radical Islam at underground mosques and clandestine meetings in Molenbeek, a heavily Muslim district in the heart of Brussels. They have since become central to Islamic State’s plans to strike the West, according to investigators, who suspect the Brussels network is behind the movement of battle-hardened operatives from Syria to Europe.

“We see many plots and several cells that we now know are part of the same network,” said Jean-Charles Brisard, president of the Center for the Analysis of Terrorism, a Paris think tank. “They’re already here. The problem is how to find them.”

The 22 men investigators are scrutinizing include those prosecuted in absentia during a major terror trial in Belgium last year, as well as several with links to a foiled plot to kill Belgian police last year. But people familiar with investigations say they believe the reach of the Brussels network extends beyond the group to others from the city who went to Syria and their sympathizers who stayed behind. [Continue reading…]

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Report: The foreign fighters phenomenon in the EU – profiles, threats & policies

International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague reports: Despite the widespread media attention for foreign fighters in Europe, very little is known about the phenomenon itself, something also evidenced by the lack of a single foreign fighter definition across the EU.

In a study commissioned by the Netherlands National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism (NCTV), ICCT addresses this gap by analysing not only the numbers and characteristics of foreign fighters across the EU, but also how the Union and Member States assess the threat of foreign fighters as well as their policy responses regarding security, preventive and legislative measures. The Report also outlines a series of policy options aimed both at the EU and its Member States.

Findings include:

  • Of a total estimated 3,922 – 4,294 foreign fighters from EU Member States, around 30% have returned to their home countries.
  • A majority of around 2,838 foreign fighters come from just four countries: Belgium, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, with Belgium having the highest per-capita FF contingent.
  • There is no clear-cut profile of a European foreign fighter. Data indicates that a majority originate from metropolitan areas, with many coming from the same neighbourhoods, that an average of 17% are female, and that the percentage of converts among foreign fighters ranges from 6% to 23%.
  • The radicalisation process of foreign fighters is reported to be short and often involves circles of friends radicalizing as a group and deciding to leave jointly for Syria and Iraq.

[Continue reading…]

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A terror attack, then far right moves in

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Frenchman plotting ‘imminent’ attack is charged with terrorism

The New York Times reports: A suspected Islamic State operative who was arrested last week had amassed a trove of guns and bomb-making equipment, including the type of explosive used in terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, the French authorities announced on Wednesday, reinforcing fears that militants are planning additional assaults on Europe.

The suspect, Reda Kriket, a 34-year-old Frenchman, was arrested on Thursday afternoon in Boulogne-Billancourt, a western suburb of Paris. That evening, the authorities raided a fourth-floor apartment Mr. Kriket had rented under a fake name in Argenteuil, a northwestern suburb that was once a popular weekend getaway and a subject for Impressionist painters.

Inside the apartment, the authorities found “an arsenal of weapons and explosives of an unprecedented size,” which led them to believe Mr. Kriket had been planning an “imminent attack,” the Paris prosecutor, François Molins, said at a news conference on Wednesday evening, describing for the first time the scope of the plot.

The arsenal included explosive materials — among them TATP, which was used in suicide bombs that were set off in Paris on Nov. 13 and in Brussels on March 22 — along with Kalashnikov assault rifles, a submachine gun, pistols, ammunition, four boxes containing thousands of small steel balls, stolen French passports, brand-new cellphones, a tear-gas canister and two computers with instructions to make explosives.

A judge who focuses on terrorism cases charged Mr. Kriket on Wednesday with terrorist conspiracy, possession of weapons and explosives, and falsification of documents, among other offenses, Mr. Molins said.

Mr. Kriket had an extensive criminal record, with multiple convictions for robbery, possession of stolen goods and acts of violence, Mr. Molins added. [Continue reading…]

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French minister accused of Islamophobia over veil comments

Hajer M’tiri reports: “There are women who choose [to wear headscarves], there were also American negroes who were for slavery”. This sentence was said by a French government minister on Wednesday. As shocking and offensive as those words are, for people from around the globe, in particular the Muslim and Black communities in France, some activists say they are not surprised, as those words “are just a continuation of the French government’s hypocritical and openly racist policy”.

Speaking on French radio RMC on Wednesday about fashion houses commercializing accessories such as veils or headscarves, Laurence Rossignol, the French minister of families, children and women’s rights, compared women who choose to wear headscarves to the “American Negroes who were for slavery” and blasted the fashion houses.

It all started on her Twitter account, when Rossignol expressed her unhappiness with British brand Marks & Spencer announcing it would offer full-body “burqini” swimsuits in its online store.

Several international clothing and accessories brands recently launched lines for “Islamic modest wear”: the Swedish giant H&M last year used a Muslim hijabi model as their main face for its advertising campaign, while the Japanese brand Uniqlo earlier this month announced it would begin selling hijabs in its London stores.

Last year Zara, Tommy Hilfiger, Oscar de la Renta, and Mango all launched varyingly “modest” collections for Muslim women.

Luxury fashion brand Dolce & Gabbana last January launched a collection of hijabs and abayas targeting wealthy Muslim women in the Middle East.

Abdallah Zekri, president of the National Observatory against Islamophobia, told Anadolu Agency that Rossignol’s remarks “stigmatize Muslim women” and “violate France’s secularist principles.”

He accused Rossignol of not tackling serious and “real” problems such as unemployment and terrorism, and instead choosing to attack Muslim women.

“Instead of choosing the path of dialogue, she is stigmatizing Muslim women. She seems to be sliding a bit to the methods of Daesh recruiters,” Zekri said.

He continued: “It is as if she’s acting as a recruiting sergeant for Daesh with such remarks. You know, it is with these kinds of statements that Daesh recruiters brainwash their victims, saying, ‘Look, they don’t see you as citizens…’.” [Continue reading…]

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Activating the sleepers: ISIS adopts a new strategy in Europe

Christoph Reuter reports: They chose the perfect moment. Just as Europe was letting out a sigh of relief, having captured one of the Paris terrorists after months of pursuit, the bombers detonated their explosives. The signal sent by the arrest was that Islamic State (IS) is defeatable. But the Brussels attack tells us that isn’t the case. Just when you think you’ve beaten us, we’ll strike you right in the heart.

Investigators and intelligence agencies both agree that preparations for the attacks in Brussels must have begun long ago. The Belgian bombs thus heralded a new approach for Islamic State in Europe — one that does not bode well for those trying to prevent acts of terrorism — because the threat is no longer limited to individuals known to the police or already on wanted lists, but also comes from those in the shadows in the second or third rank. Even jihadists who have not yet been identified by officials are now capable of striking.

This approach reflects the one used in IS’ main battle grounds of Syria and Iraq. For some time there, unsuspected aggressors, who have been discreetly trained, have infiltrated targeted circles and built up long-term sleeper cells. Or men from regions neighboring a target are recruited to wait and attack at the right moment.

This is a modus operandi that has been employed by terrorists against prominent and often well-defended opponents multiple times — it’s how Abu Khalid al Suri, the Syrian emissary for al-Qaida boss Aiman al-Zawahiri, was betrayed by one of his own employees and killed in early 2014 by IS despite all possible protective measures being taken at his top secret hideout.

A rebel commander who had fled after Islamic State had taken over Raqqa was abducted by his own driver in Turkey, who was working under the orders of IS. And the founder of the secret activist network Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently was massacred in his apartment in the Turkish city of Sanliurfa by an IS agent who had infiltrated the opponents months before, posing as a supporter.

The people behind this terror are proving to be surprisingly farsighted, patient planners and not rash actors — and this applies in both Europe and Syria. This is the new and long underestimated side of IS. [Continue reading…]

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How ISIS built the machinery of terror under Europe’s gaze

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The New York Times reports: The day he left Syria with instructions to carry out a terrorist attack in France, Reda Hame, a 29-year-old computer technician from Paris, had been a member of the Islamic State for just over a week.

His French passport and his background in information technology made him an ideal recruit for a rapidly expanding group within ISIS that was dedicated to terrorizing Europe. Over just a few days, he was rushed to a park, shown how to fire an assault rifle, handed a grenade and told to hurl it at a human silhouette. His accelerated course included how to use an encryption program called TrueCrypt, the first step in a process intended to mask communications with his ISIS handler back in Syria.

The handler, code-named Dad, drove Mr. Hame to the Turkish border and sent him off with advice to pick an easy target, shoot as many civilians as possible and hold hostages until the security forces made a martyr of him.

“Be brave,” Dad said, embracing him.

Mr. Hame was sent out by a body inside the Islamic State that was obsessed with striking Europe for at least two years before the deadly assaults in Paris last November and in Brussels this month. In that time, the group dispatched a string of operatives trained in Syria, aiming to carry out small attacks meant to test and stretch Europe’s security apparatus even as the most deadly assaults were in the works, according to court proceedings, interrogation transcripts and records of European wiretaps obtained by The New York Times. [Continue reading…]

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Europe’s shattered peace, Europe’s struggling values

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Judy Dempsey writes: The terrorist attacks that have killed at least 31 people in Brussels and injured some 270 others on March 22 have changed Europe’s perception about itself. Until now, despite so many calculated murders of many innocent civilians in Madrid, London, Copenhagen, and Paris— among other cities across Europe—since 2004, European leaders have adopted ad hoc measures to counter this new challenge. What makes Brussels different is that there’s now an acceptance by EU leaders that these attacks will continue.

All the measures taken so far have fallen way short of confronting the threat. European leaders didn’t want to admit that the peace that reigned across Europe since the end of World War II had been shattered. As Elmar Brok, the German chairman of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee said after the Brussels bombings, “This is a new form of war that Europe has to deal with.”

This is the new and uncomfortable reality that European leaders now have to accept and respond to. It is a reality that is not going to go away as long as the so-called Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, and their battalions of supporters inside and outside Europe continue their mission to attack everything that Europe stands for. It is Europe’s liberal values and open society that the perpetrators of these attacks, many of them born in Europe, are taking advantage of. Those values are now at stake. [Continue reading…]

Reuters reports: Even before the shock of last week’s deadly Brussels bombings, gallows humor had taken hold in the square kilometer around Schuman Roundabout, the heart of the city’s European district.

It’s been a miserable start to the year for the European Union with the unresolved migration crisis poisoning relations among member governments, negotiations to avert a British exit getting trickier, Greece’s debt crisis dragging on, and Islamist militant attacks exposing serial cross-border security lapses.

A succession of emergency summits of the 28 national leaders has fueled an atmosphere of permanent crisis. And political weather forecasters say worse storms may be on the way.

Among staff working for EU institutions, long used to being unloved scapegoats for national politicians, the mood oscillates between despond and defiance.

“The European Union is like the orchestra that played on the Titanic,” Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said in January, urging EU officials to redirect their focus to promoting growth and employment instead of “this mistaken bureaucratic approach”.

Officials have been strictly instructed not to do or say anything that may affect Britain’s knife-edge June 23 referendum on whether to remain in the bloc. [Continue reading…]

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How ISIS laid out its plans to export chaos to Europe

The Guardian reports: Nine days before the Paris attacks, Islamic State leaders gathered in the Syrian town of Tabqah to talk about what was coming next for the terror organisation. Senior officials from across the so-called caliphate had made difficult journeys under constant fear of airstrikes to the small town west of Raqqa.

In what marked a critical phase in the group’s evolution, there was to be a new focus on exporting chaos to Europe, the assembled men were told. And up to 200 militants were in place across the continent ready to receive orders.

Details of the meeting have been relayed to the Guardian by two Isis members who are familiar with what was discussed. Both said the mood in Tabqah that evening in early November was triumphant. Senior leaders said they were turning their focus to European capitals, and had dispatched foreign fighters back to their homelands to prepare attack plans. And wait.

The move marked a decisive shift away from putting all the organisation’s efforts into holding on to lands it had conquered in Syria and Iraq – a cause it acknowledged could not prevail against 14 different air forces and the omniscient eavesdropping powers of its foes.

Instead, the group now had the capacity to take the fight to the heart of its enemy. The means to do so had always been there through Europe’s porous borders, which had often facilitated the original journeys. However, the migrant route that had ferried hundreds of thousands of Syrians and Iraqis fleeing persecution had also allowed a small number of Isis members to blend in, and head back the other way.

In essence, Isis had begun to prioritise controlling populations over geography. While it hadn’t given up its grip on the large swath of Iraq and Syria it had seized at the expense of each sovereign state, the original area it controlled was now less important than the faraway societies it could influence. [Continue reading…]

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