November 15, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: One Year Since the Paris Attacks

• November 13 marked the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people and wounded hundreds more.

• The consequences of those attacks are still playing out and will likely last for years, as France is likely to extend its ‘state of emergency’.

• French authorities have shifted to counterterrorism policies centered on preventive raids, which is an effective tactic but not a comprehensive strategy for addressing the drivers of extremism in the country.

• Historic trends of large immigrant communities in France coupled with a notoriously poor record of removing barriers to integration are unlikely to be resolved through a state of emergency.

The aftermath of the November 2015 Paris attacks brought significant fears of a subsequent wave of terror. While there have been subsequent attacks in Europe, these fears have not been realized to a degree matching the initial concerns. However, many of the underlying drivers that facilitated those first attacks persist unabated. A very effective shift in counterterrorism tactics by French authorities has helped mitigate what remains a serious national and EU-wide threat of terrorism. By moving away from tactics based on placing individuals on watch lists and monitoring them—both of which require seamless coordination and massive resources—to detection and disruption, France has likely prevented several large-scale attacks. With the horrifying exception of the Bastille Day terror attack in Nice—in which one individual driving a large truck through a crowded promenade killed 84 people—as well as a few other more minor incidents—France has seen a number of significant tactical counterterrorism successes over the past year.

On November 13—the one-year anniversary of the Paris attacks—French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said that the state of emergency enacted in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, and most recently extended for six months in July after the Nice attack, would likely be extended again. Like many countries that have experienced serious terror attacks, France faces a realistic yet sensationalized risk of further attacks. Providing citizens with the perception of security under such circumstances has led France to its current quandary of indefinitely extending temporary states of emergency to deal with a threat nearly permanent in its menace; while the level of threat will inevitably rise and fall, it will not disappear altogether. This dilemma leaves all democratic countries—not just France—with difficult choices. Often, these situations lead countries to employ policies in which security concerns tend to trump other concerns—which in effect provide terror groups implicit victories, even without launching additional attacks. 

The extension of France’s state of emergency will likely go through the upcoming presidential election in the spring of 2017. The trauma of the Paris and Nice attacks, as well as the earlier Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015, have injured French society and politics as much as it has hurt tourism and other areas. Like any country struggling with the balance of security—real or perceived—any attack in the lead up to the elections could have outsized repercussions. The right-wing of French politics is poised to make a serious showing in coming elections; another terror attack would amplify concerns surrounding refugees, the persistent threat of Islamic State cells, and the conflicts in Iraq and Syria. The political impact of fears concerning terrorism and refugees—fears that are exaggerated yet also credible—is difficult to overstate given the populist trends being witnessed around the world.

The most worrisome aspect of the past year for France, as well as the EU as a whole, is how overtaxed its security and intelligence forces are, and how on edge its citizens remain. French authorities have conducted thousands of raids since November 2015, detaining hundreds of people—though most have been released without charges. Maintaining that kind of operational tempo—while not creating future extremists through overreach—is difficult for any democratic nation. Persistently poor societal assimilation, high levels of unemployment, and a sizable number of well-established networks of Islamic State cells means that France will have to juggle the risk of a near-permanent state of emergency, or work towards finding an acceptable balance of security and civil liberties in one of the world’s most important democracies.


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