Why France has become a prime target for terrorists

The Nice attack. Photo: Valery Hache/ AFP/ Getty Images.

Another attack has hit France, and early indications seem to point to terrorism.

At least 70 people were reportedly killed in the southern French city of Nice when a truck ran into a crowd celebrating the Bastille Day national holiday on Thursday night.

If a terrorist group is indeed responsible, this would be the second major terror attack to his France in a year — and the third since January 2015.

John Schindler, the national-security columnist for The New York Observer, tweeted after November attacks in Paris that killed 130 people: “Jihadists with Balkan small arms were shooting up France in 1995 … got no idea why anybody is surprised.”

Attackers used guns and bombs at several sites across Paris in that attack, including the Stade de France and the Bataclan concert hall, leading to an examination of why France has become a prime target for terror groups.

ISIS (also known as the Islamic State or ISIL) called Paris “the capital of prostitution and vice” in a statement claiming responsibility for the Paris attacks last year. The terrorist group also stated that France and “all nations following in its path” are “at the top of the target list for the Islamic State.”

Under President Francois Hollande, France launched its first airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria last September. The country is also a closer and more opportunistic target for extremist groups.

Witnesses at the Bataclan said the gunmen shouted in French, “This is because of all the harm done by Hollande to Muslims all over the world,” according to The New York Times. Another witness confirmed this to CNN, telling the news network the attacker who shouted that statement sounded like a native French speaker.

Will McCants, an expert on extremism and author of the recent book “The ISIS Apocalypse,” told Business Insider in November that the attack could have been a pointed warning to France to cease strikes in Syria.

It could be “to say to France, ‘If you continue to bomb our positions, there’s going to be more of the same and you had better leave off or more of your civilians will die,'” McCants said.

But he pointed out that it’s difficult to speculate about ISIS’s reasoning because “it may be a matter of where they had the greatest opportunity.”

“The nation that is ISIS’ greatest enemy is the United States,” McCants said. “And you would have to expect that [the US] would be at the very top of their list of targets. But it’s also very difficult to get operatives into this country.”

Paris might also be a more fruitful recruiting ground for ISIS than cities in some other Western countries.

Military personnel patrol the area around the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Photo: Getty Images

Tensions surrounding France’s Muslim community have long been simmering, as George Packer, a foreign correspondent for The New Yorker who covered the Iraq war, chronicled in an August article. The piece, “The Other France,” wondered whether Paris suburbs are an “incubator for terrorism.”

“France has all kinds of suburbs, but the word for them, banlieues, has become pejorative, meaning slums dominated by immigrants,” Packer wrote.

“Inside the banlieues are the cités: colossal concrete housing projects built during the postwar decades in the Brutalist style of Le Corbusier. Conceived as utopias for workers, they have become concentrations of poverty and social isolation. The cités and their occupants are the subject of anxious and angry discussion in France.”

After the attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo earlier last year, which was carried out by Al Qaeda operatives, local activists in a Paris banlieue worried that it would divide France even more.

“I fear for the Muslims of France,” one woman wrote on an activist’s Facebook page, according to Packer. “The narrow-minded or frightened are going to dig in their heels and make an amalgame” to conflate terrorists with all Muslims, the woman said.

Packer explained the context of the tensions between some French people and families who came over from Algeria:

When Algeria was settled by Europeans, in the early nineteenth century, it became part of greater France, and remained so until 1962, when independence was achieved, after an eight-year war in which seven hundred thousand people died. It’s hard to overstate how heavily this intimate, sad history has been repressed. “The Battle of Algiers,” the filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo’s neo-realist masterpiece about insurgency, counterinsurgency, terrorism, and torture in Algiers, was banned in France for five years after its release, in 1966, and it remains taboo there. On October 17, 1961, during demonstrations by pro-independence Algerians in Paris and its suburbs, the French police killed some two hundred people, throwing many bodies off bridges into the Seine. It took forty years for France to acknowledge that this massacre had occurred, and the incident remains barely mentioned in schools. Young people in the banlieues told me that colonial history is cursorily taught, and literature from former colonies hardly read.

Andrew Hussey, a British scholar at the University of London School of Advanced Study in Paris, told Packer: “The kids in the banlieues live in this perpetual present of weed, girls, gangsters, Islam. They have no sense of history, no sense of where they come from in North Africa, other than localised bits of Arabic that they don’t understand, bits of Islam that don’t really make sense.”

This can be isolating for Muslims in Paris’ suburbs.

Packer explained that citizens of immigrant descent “often identify whites with the term Français de souche — ‘French from the roots.’ The implication is that people with darker skin are not fully French.”

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