October 30, 2020

IntelBrief: France Suffers Several Terrorist Attacks as Cartoon Controversy Escalates

Police officers stand guard near Notre Dame church in Nice, southern France, Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020. (Eric Gaillard/Pool via AP)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The controversy in France surrounding the publication of several cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad continues to escalate.
  • There is growing concern about reciprocal radicalization, as tit-for-tat violence further amplifies discord throughout the country.
  • France is facing a reckoning with its Muslim population, the largest in Europe, accused of failing to integrate Muslims into French society.
  • The situation assumed a global dimension, developing into a spat between French President Emmanuel Macron and Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The controversy in France surrounding the publication of several cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad continues to escalate. Yesterday in the southern French city of Nice, a terrorist killed three people and injured several others at a cathedral. One of the victims was beheaded by the perpetrator, who appears to be a 21-year-old Tunisian migrant who arrived in Italy in September before traveling to France in early October. Also yesterday, an individual in Avignon was shot and killed by police after threatening civilians with a gun, in an incident that is also being investigated by counter terrorism officials, although some reporting suggests the assailant was a far-right extremist, potentially associated with the Identitarian movement. There were also two other potential attacks disrupted in France yesterday, one at a train station in Lyon, and another near a church in Sartrouville, northwest of Paris. Finally, at the French Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, a security guard was stabbed, and a statement released by France’s embassy in Saudi Arabia urged French citizens to ‘take the utmost caution.’ Similar warning were issued earlier this week by France’s Foreign Ministry to French citizens living or traveling in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Turkey, Iraq, and Mauritania.

These incidents come on the heels of the decapitation of a teacher, Samuel Paty, who was beheaded near Paris last week by a terrorist of Chechen origin. Abdoulakh Anzorov, the assailant who was shot dead by police, was incensed that Paty showed his students caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that were originally published by the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the offices of which were attacked in 2015. Several days after Paty was murdered, two Muslim women wearing hijabs were stabbed near the Eiffel Tower. There is serious and growing concern about reciprocal radicalization, which stipulates that extremist groups fuel one another’s rhetoric or actions, including violence. Following the horrific beheading of Paty, French security services launched dozens of raids around the country and sought to detain suspected Islamic extremists. Over the past eight years, France has suffered more than three dozen terrorist attacks, many of them inspired by the so-called Islamic State, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of its citizens. More French men and women traveled to the Middle East to fight with the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq than any other European country.

France is facing a reckoning with its Muslim population, which at approximately 6 million is the largest in Europe and comprises roughly 10 percent of the population. France continues to face accusations that the government has failed to integrate Muslims, including those born in France, into society. Some prominent French politicians blame Muslims for failing to assimilate. The tit-for-tat violence and incendiary comments from a range of political elites will further amplify discord in France. French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin spoke of ‘the enemy within,’ in reference to radicalized Muslims, while far-right politician Marine Le Pen tweeted about ‘eradicating Islamism.’ French President Emmanuel Macron warned against ‘Islamist separatism’ in France. Issues of free speech are a heated topic of debate, including the question of deliberately insulting religion, which while entirely within the legal right of French citizens, can be viewed by others as unnecessarily provocative. Following the murder of Paty, his portrait was emblazoned in public places throughout the country and the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed were projected onto public buildings in several French cities. Paty’s death has served as a rallying cry for French citizens defending free speech and speaking out against the barbarity of the beheading.

The situation has taken on a global dimension, too, developing into a war of words between Macron and Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who have clashed on foreign policy in places like Libya and the eastern Mediterranean. But the recent spat led Erdogan to call on all Muslim nations to boycott French goods. Following the series of attacks yesterday in France, Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad tweeted that ‘Muslims have a right to be angry and to kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past.’ France remains fiercely committed to practicing the ideals the country was founded upon, and the French concept of laicite, or secularism, is deeply ingrained in French society. But many French Muslims complain of a double standard, and insist that the concept of laicite is rarely extended to French Catholics, who comprise (at least in name) two-thirds of the population. In recent years, the French ban on headscarves or veils in public schools or for public servants working in government institutions has stirred controversy and even attracted the attention of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who discussed the issue in the jihadist group’s propaganda.