I woke this morning to eight people messaging me. The texts were varied, but they all had the same central message: turn on the news. What I saw shocked me, but it did not surprise me. Nobody who has been watching the increasing radicalisation of Islamic youth in Europe would be surprised. It is clear now that at least five sites around Paris have been hit. The size and scale of these attacks makes them nearly unprecedented in Europe, rivalling the Nord-Ost and Beslan school sieges in Russia over a decade ago.
News sources are confused, as is expected at a time like this. While no group has accepted responsibility for the attacks, many analysts have suggested that ISIS, or a French ISIS affiliate, are to blame. Additionally, social media has been aflutter with various pro-ISIS accounts celebrating the attacks. The death toll for the victims is currently sitting between 140 and 160 – mostly from the Bataclan Concert Hall, where Eagles of Death Metal were playing. The Associated Press contends that all of the attackers responsible are dead, but other sources are hesitant to confirm this. The AFP have declared that eight militants are dead, seven from detonating suicide explosive devices. Various news sources have falsely reported that France’s current declared state of emergency is the first since 1945. In fact, France declared a state of emergency as recently as 2005, when the deaths of two men, children of immigrants who had grown up in France, caused mass rioting. Moreover, states of emergency were declared multiple times throughout the 1950s and 1960s in Algeria. But enough nitpicking. This is a dark day, rightly earning the label ‘Black Friday.’
France’s population is estimated to include about 6.5 million Muslims. Exact figures are unknown, because France’s secularism laws forbid people from stating religious affiliation on census documents. However, 6.5 million means about 10% of the French population. It is important, at a time like this, to remember that the overwhelming majority of French Muslims will be horrified by these attacks. This should go without saying. France does however have 10,000 citizens on its terrorist watch list. 1,500 French citizens have gone to the Levant to fight for ISIS, and 200 have returned.
Insufficient research has been done into the effects of returning IS fighters on secular societies with youth populations susceptible to radicalisation. Islamic radicalisation is often the result of Salafist and Wahabist belief systems, which follow an extreme militant version of Islam that is condemned by the religion’s mainstream. Extremism is however growing in popularity – all across the world, and in places with traditionally peaceful Islamic populations like Sri Lanka, Malaysia and the Maldives. Europe is not immune, and indeed seems to be particularly susceptible. We can draw this down to several factors that aid in the radicalisation of youth: lack of belonging, racism, bias by police and government departments, masculinity issues*, trauma, and the related negative effects that refugees in particular often have to deal with. All of these factors can contribute to radicalisation. But what spurns a man to pick up an assault rifle and willingly fire into a crowd of innocent civilians? The act saddens and disgusts me, and I believe the world at large.
The massive scale of this attack demands attention. It is much easier to disregard lone gunman attacks as the acts of mentally ill people. Organising weapons, explosives, maps, recruits and plans to coordinate so seamlessly on this scale without tripping a single counter-terrorism wire takes an extraordinary amount of effort. The French have decades of counter-terrorism experience, and are no doubt at the forefront of cyber counter-terrorism measures. Thus, it must be assumed that the majority of this planning occurred off the grid. Face to face communication and notes are the likely way in which this was planned. Make no mistake that these attacks were planned over months – people devoting all of their time to the destruction of French lives. Flip the situation on its head though, and we remember that the West has been killing Muslim civilians in the Middle East for well over a decade – and that’s only the most recent war.
Now, we look to the future. The French government must decide how to prevent these sorts of attacks happening again, and European cooperation as a whole will be vital. Obviously, the most important thing to do right now is tackle radicalisation in France, but it is likely that this immediate backlash will see a crackdown on the French and wider European attitude to refugees. The vast majority will be from the Middle East and North Africa, and these legitimate refugees will be the first ones to suffer in today’s aftermath.
This is the worst attack in France since the close of the Second World War. Ironically, France was playing a friendly soccer match with Germany at the Stad de France at the time of the attacks. France has made a friend out of an old enemy after nearly 80 years of enmity. The country’s struggle with Islamic extremism is a vastly different kind of conflict, but Europe’s experience with Germany nonetheless creates a valuable precedent: that peace can be achieved if we focus on inclusive, and not divisive means.
*Research is being done into this, but if you ask me the writing is on the wall. The success and actions of Boko Haram can be endlessly dissected from a feminist perspective.
Words by Brad Griffin