A Threat Beyond Extremist Networks? Recent Attacks in France Raise Concerns

So far in 2020, France has had an increasing number of lone wolf terror attacks. This increase sets a worrying precedent for not only the French intelligence services but that of the international community too.

None of the individuals carrying out the attacks that have taken place since September were known to the intelligence services. They were not linked to a terror group, no group claimed them, and they had no stated political agenda. The only signs of radicalisation were on social media, and they were tenuous at best. When more sophisticated weapons are used, the knowledge and materials are hard to come by and their research often leaves a trail that intelligence services pick up. However, what these attacks have in common is that kitchen knives were used, generally an innocuous purchase.  

Within France, tough questions are being asked of the government and intelligence services on how to combat the threat. These recent attacks are a far-cry from the highly organised and sophisticated attacks of 2015. The Former head of the French intelligence services, Bernard Squarcini, has commented that France is confronted with ‘a new generation’ of extremists. 7 of the 9 attacks this year have been carried out by individuals unknown to intelligence services.

The trigger for the most recent attacks was the republication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad by the magazine Charlie Hebdo. The result was huge protest overseas, most notably in Pakistan where videos surfaced of protesters wielding knives. Zaher Hassan Mahmood, repeatedly watched videos of the protests before buying a butcher’s knife and stabbing two outside the former offices of the magazine in September. The beheading of a schoolteacher followed a similar timeline, Anzorov was triggered by hearing the teacher, Samuel Paty, showed the caricatures to school children. On the same day of the attack he was looking for individuals on twitter who had offended Islam. The most recent attack came from Brahim Aouissaoui, who killed 3 with a knife in Nice. His family and friends said he showed no signs of radicalization and was seeming a normal young adult. Experts in the field are calling these individuals fanatics rather than jihadists, in essence ‘lone wolf’ attackers without a political agenda.

It may be easy for some to say the French intelligence services could be doing a better job; however this new threat challenges many of the previously effective surveillance tactics used to combat extremism. There are very few signs these individuals were radicalised, and the signs often came on the day of the attack.

The response of the French government has come under fire for being ‘inappropriate’ and ‘counterproductive’. The government have given the attacks a political dimension that experts don’t believe they warrant. Islamic separatism is what the state says is the main threat, as a result there has been a crackdown on Muslim individuals and organisations deemed to be Islamist. Policies and comments like these from the French government have angered many countries, including Turkey, who have called for a boycott of French goods. Commentators also criticised the policies saying these attacks are not a result of religious indoctrination. All the individuals in recent attacks were described by all as normal young adults looking for better opportunities in France. They were spurred on by a trigger event, the republication of caricatures of Muhammad, not a long process of radicalisation.

It is important to note the importance of the global pandemic in this too. Some sources have indicated such a rise in attacks was only a matter of time. National lockdowns and lacking opportunities for younger generations as a result of the pandemic are a melting pot for radicalisation. Social isolation, more time online and strains on mental health only serve to exacerbate disillusionment with society, making people vulnerable. Extremists and radicalisers know this and will aim to exploit these vulnerabilities. These most recent attacks may not be a result of direct contact with radicalisers, but it would not be unreasonable to suggest that the socio-economic consequences of the pandemic had an impact on these individuals. Without the support points normally available, like friends, social activities, school and the wider community, isolation can very quickly have a disastrous impact. According to the national coordinator for Prevent (part of the UKs counter-terrorism strategy), referrals from the community were down by 50% during the first lockdown in the UK. This is not a case of fewer people needing help, but that fewer people are getting access to it. A very worrying sign for the UK and coupled with the events in France, the terrorism threat level in the UK has been raised to ‘Severe’.

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