The ongoing terrorism threat and France’s “new normal”
Since January 2015, France has been hit by seven high-profile radical Islamist terrorist attacks that have left more than 235 dead and 380 injured. The country is among the western European nations most affected by the Sunni extremist threat.
Local and international militants have proven their capacity to develop networks within France to spread their ideology, recruit new militants and sympathizers, conduct support and financing operations as well as plan and carry out attacks. The terrorist threat has led the government to implement a state of emergency that was put in place in November 2015 and is slated to continue at least until May 2017.
Radical Islamist terrorism has become a key social and political issue that has had a profound lasting effect on the French society and economy. While the nation copes with this “new normal”, strategic shifts in the Middle East are likely to lead to an evolution of the Islamic State strategy in France. This will probably lead to enhanced attention given by Middle East-based leaders to conduct attacks in France as well as focusing energies and manpower on a higher volume of single-assailant/small-scale plots.
France at the heart of the Islamic State global strategy
Militants linked or inspired by the Islamic State have demonstrated their will and capabilities to carry out attacks nationwide. France features among the top priority countries in the Islamic State’s foreign operations agenda. While radical Islamists’ approach to France may evolve in the medium term, the country will almost certainly remain at the heart of the Islamic State European strategy.
The Syrian conflict has exposed the presence of a high volume of deep-rooted radical Islamist networks present throughout France. Extremists with links to local criminal groups have been recruiting hundreds of French youths from different backgrounds. This situation is unlikely to abate in the short-term and will realistically continue to generate social and security issues for the country’s governing authorities.
While the Islamic State has been losing territory in Syria, Iraq and Libya, senior officials of the group have repeatedly called for attacks in France. The country continues to be specifically singled-out in Sunni extremists’ propaganda videos as militants try to push their followers to conduct attacks in France. The terrorist risk in France is likely to continue to constitute a major security concern throughout 2017.
An evolving terrorist threat
Throughout 2016, French security services have successfully detained dozens of radical Islamist militants and foiled several terrorist plots. Under the state of emergency, police put increased pressure on cells with regional and international links to the Islamic State. As such, it is likely that as French citizens who fought in Syria and Iraq will start returning to their country, new cells will develop with a higher focus on recruitment and operational planning in France.
The evolution of the terrorist threat in France is likely to go through a change in the relation between French networks and Middle East-based groups. Militants located in Syria and Iraq are expected to continue to give operational instructions to their followers; however, French radical Islamists will probably benefit from a higher freedom of action and communication between the Islamic State and its French cells, which may be carried out only via social media and messaging applications. The multiplication of cells loosely linked to the Islamic State is likely to complicate the security and intelligence agencies’ monitoring of the threat.
As the Islamic State is likely to increasingly rely on the development and expansion of local networks to bolster its operations in France, there is a heightened risk that the group will also devote additional resources to inspire sympathisers to carry out single assailant attacks similar to those that hit Nice and Berlin respectively in July and December 2016. The group has clearly stated that it intends to generate a high volume of attacks in western Europe, and single assailant operations involving shootings, car-rammings, as well as stabbings and suicide bombings serve the double objective of generating a high perceived feeling of insecurity while minimising the planning required in more complex attacks.
Terrorism to remain a key political and economic issue
As the threat posed by radical Islamist militants has increasingly become part of the “new normal” that defines the French security environment, terrorism is highly likely to be a driving political factor in the run-up to the April-May 2017 presidential elections. All candidates will be heavily scrutinised for the policies they will propose in a bid to counter the current threat. The heavy importance of the terrorist threat in the ongoing presidential campaign is likely to weaken the position of the Parti Socialiste (PS) who is widely viewed as having carried out policies that have been unable to prevent further attacks throughout the last 18 months. The Islamic State has understood that attacks have the capabilities of weakening European governments and it is probable that self-radicalised extremists and/or organised cells will try to hit France ahead of the elections. Any attack in France before April will almost certainly push security further up on the candidates’ agendas.
For France, responding in a highly proactive manner to the evolving terrorist threat will be an essential issue in the coming years. The repeated Islamist attacks have substantially damaged the country’s tourist industry. Hotel occupancy rates as well as restaurant reservations and overall foreign tourists’ arrivals have substantially decreased in the period of time following the Nice attack. This comes against the backdrop of wider concerns as the Islamic State attacks in a Berlin Christmas Market and a nightclub in Istanbul further highlight the group’s capacity and willingness to target soft civilian structures key to global tourism.
Riccardo Dugulin is an analyst at Drum Cussac, a global business risk consultancy. He specializes in supporting international organizations and large corporations operating in emerging markets by providing them with critical risk management intelligence. His regions of expertise are the Near East, the Gulf, North Africa and Continental Europe. He previously worked as project manager for a French medical assistance company. He gained field experience in the Middle East having worked for leading think tanks in Dubai and Beirut. Riccardo holds a Master in International Affairs from the Sciences Po – Paris and a Bachelor in Middle Eastern Studies from the same university. Follow him on Twitter @RiccardoDugulin.