Gilles Ferragu, IFE Board member, Professor of History at Sciences Po and the University of Paris, and author of a recent book on the history of terrorism, discusses the recent attacks with IFE:
IFE: Who are the perpetrators? So far ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attacks; should we believe them?
GF: At the moment we don’t know too much, but as far as the perpetrators of the attack on the Bataclan are concerned, witnesses suggest that they were very young and so it seems improbable that they were in direct contact with the Islamic State, but we don’t know how their network was formed. That said, the attacks were highly orchestrated and well funded, a quasi-military operation which suggests an organization capable of that, and so the involvement of ISIS does seem probable. In any case this round of terror manifests a real, and disturbing, network in place.
Concerning the name ISIS or Islamic State, there has been some discussion among commentators; what is the nomenclature you favor?
GF: Well I think that we are facing a real State, yes, even if it is not a state in conventional terms recognized by the West. But it is an entity that has a justice system, the Charia, and a system of organization, but which refuses just about all of our categories of a State and in particular diplomatic relations. It is a State but one which thinks of itself as an Islamic State of the 6th or 7th century.
In the early reactions by French authorities and many overseas the events of November 13 have been described as war. Others are raising objections to this language. How do you feel about this characterization?
GF: Well there are two things here. First of all, talking about terrorism in terms of war is in fact debatable. Normally terrorism is considered as political violence. But this series of attacks have been linked by the organizers to France’s involvement in Syria and so it can be considered as an extension or an effect of the war in Syria. While normally we talk about war as something carried out against a State and not a concept or a phenomenon, in this case it is clearly linked to the Syrian intervention, and so we can legitimately talk in terms of war, yes.
How can France and its allies fight this war against, supposedly, the Islamic State?
GF: First of all it is a question of the networks in place, and the need to uncover all who had anything at all to do with this or other terrorist acts, but there is no guarantee, no zero risk, the risk of further violence is with us. Then there is the problem of radicalization: how is that people raised here in France can be so radicalized? Thirdly, it is important to work with the international community to destroy ISIS’ networks of recruitment, communication, and funding. The easy internet links between people here and those in Syria must be undermined. Overall the reaction must be in part pedagogical and in part police work. In a second stage, there is the question of dismantling ISIS itself, which must be the work of a whole coalition of nations.
By which you mean going to war, boots on the ground?
GF: Well this is what ISIS is hoping for, but I think that there exactly is the trap, taking to war to the Islamic State in Syria. This is what they seek, along with a radicalization of muslims in Europe.
But isn’t what we saw after Charlie Hebdo the opposite, that is, the rejection by Islamic communities in France of radical islamicist rhetoric and violence?
GF: Yes that’s right, but what I fear is the radicalization along the extreme edge as well as the radicalisation of populist extremists attracting followers to their Islamophobic discourse.
Ironic perhaps, but what you describe is a danger of radicalization along two opposite lines, is that right?
GF: Yes, the exploitation of the situation by both extremes for their proper ends is to be feared.
Whom exactly is ISIS fighting, who is the target of this “war”? Is it France, the West, who exactly?
GF:The West first of all, and then the countries of the coalition and in particular against France which is particularly easy to attack. It’s a democracy, a large democracy, and it is easy to attack, to create fear among a large number of people. France is also accessible geographically, with long porous frontiers, it has a large Muslim population which makes it possible to recruit a radical fringe. It has also an advanced technological infrastructure, and is at the crossroads of many European countries. In short it is the ideal country in which to carry out this sort of operation.
Have we seen the worst of it?
GF: Terrorism works on and because of our emotions. At each attack we think we have seen the worst, but it’s not sure. What is sure is that is important to resist fear, not to succumb to it, for it is this that makes terror less effective.
Is the French response sufficient? Are you confident in their reactions?
GF: Yes. But today there is an op-ed piece by the Italian Erri Luca, who argues that the civic response is important. The measures of surveillance and civil security are responsibilities of citizenship also. It’s not only a job of the police or the army.
And its allies?
GF: Given the reactions we have seen already, I have no doubt that France’s allies will step up, even if it were only because the threat is a common threat facing all.
Can you give us some historical perspective on terrorist actions in Paris.
GF: The concept of political violence or terror was born with the French revolution. But even if France has known political violence for a long time, you never get used to it, you can’t. The recent attacks put me in mind right away of the terrorist attacks of 1985 and ’86 carried out in France by the Hezbollah as a result of France’s engagement with Irak in its war against Iran. In 1995 the bombs in the trains were a result of unrest in Algeria. France is periodically affected by acts of terror.