Police patrol near Notre Dame Cathedral following a series of deadly attacks in Paris , November 14, 2015.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The state of emergency declared by French President Francois Hollande on November 13 in response to the massive terrorist attacks in Paris put in place a number of measures that hadn’t been used since the Second World War. A citywide curfew went into effect and martial law was declared. With more than 120 killed in the attacks and almost another 100 critically wounded, this is the highest death toll since 1944 as well.
There is a palpable feeling that the attacks on France represent a turning point in history. Commentators wondered how the “city of light” could be invaded by gun-wielding terrorists, intent only on murder. As many have pointed out, there has been a slow build-up to these Islamist attacks: the Toulouse and Montauban shootings in 2012, the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket attacks in January, the Lyon beheading in June and the Thalys train attack in August.
In March Prime Minister Manuel Valls told reporters that there could be as many as 10,000 Europeans fighting for Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq by the end of the year. “There are 3,000 Europeans in Iraq and Syria,” he said, “do you realize the threat this represents...there have already been nearly 90 French people who have died out there with a weapon in their hand, fighting against our own values.”
In June, 2015 the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization estimated that some 1,200 French citizens were in Syria and Iraq, killing people for IS.
France was the leading European supplier of foreign jihadists, with Germany and the UK close behind (600-800 each). “The return of foreign fighters is an increasing problem for many countries in the EU,” said one article. Denmark was working to “rehabilitate” the killers. That’s an extraordinary admission when one thinks about it: Men from Europe traveled to Syria and Iraq, committed genocide and war crimes against Yezidis, Shi’ite and Sunni Arabs, and then came back home, in some cases to a welcome mat, which included educational opportunities and even gym memberships by one report.
As early as September 2014 France’s interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve was working on legislation to stem the flow of support for IS. Returning fighters had said “they are ready to leave again” according to a report in The New York Times. France should “stop people from leaving because those who leave and come back, they come back after having seen executions, beheadings and crucifixions,” said Cazeneuve.
Having seen? Having committed, more like.
European states for the most part turned a blind eye to this issue, allowing citizens to go and come back and maybe go again. Imagine a British citizen in 1940 going to Nazi Germany, serving at Auschwitz, then coming back to the UK, taking tea at noon for a few months and then going back to Nazi Germany. One assumes that such a person would not have been “rehabilitated,” but sent to prison. But 1940 is not 2015.
The revelations about foreign fighters bears on our understanding of the Paris attacks. Some voices have been raised since the attacks demanding a ban on Syrian migrants or claiming that the Syrian refugee issue is connected to it. The US presidential candidate Ben Carson called for a ban on Middle East refugees. The International Business Times referenced this debate in noting “the country [France] could not stop the flow of refugees and migrants into the country.” Ed Royce, Chair of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, told CNN that 185 IS members were in France after returning from Syria and Iraq. The brief closing of France’s borders under the state of emergency symbolized the feeling that the open borders of the EU were problematic.
Paris prosecutor Francois Molins is busy figuring out the dossiers on the eight terrorists. One of them at least is thought to have entered Europe via the Greek island of Leros and had a possibly forged Syrian passport. He went through Serbia in October on his way to France. It turns out Germany arrested a man on November 5 with large numbers of weapons and explosives in a car in Bavaria, now thought to have links with the Paris attacks.
“It shows how important it is for us to have some clarity on who is in our country,” said Horst Seehofer, the Bavarian state premier.
The results of the terrorist attack are a revelation of the continued crumbling of the Schengen open borders zone that dates from 1985. Thirty years of an open Europe are being closed. It is important to not stigmatize the Syrian refugees and instead ask why thousands of European jihadists were not prosecuted for foreign crimes. European courts with “international jurisdiction” have gone after South American dictators, but can’t stop their own citizens? Another development is that IS has transitioned from being a geographically based terrorist state, like the Taliban, to an international terrorist organization, like al-Qaida was in the 1990s and early 2000s. From Beirut to Sinai, Baghdad and Paris, it is focusing efforts on mass murder abroad, now that it is being rolled back in Syria and Iraq by Shi’ite and Kurdish forces.
The French attacks, so similar to the Madrid bombings in 2004, London in 2005, the Mumbai attacks in 2008, Kenya in 2013, will become, like 9/11, a part of national consciousness, but will they spur changes in policy? Will French police learn from the consequences of their hesitancy to storm the Bataclan theater, or to neutralize terrorists immediately in future attacks? Will IS members be charged upon returning from Syria? Will another round of “global war on terror” have any impact on the endless tragic list of international mass murder spectacles? Dietrich von Choltitz, the German occupation commander, saved Paris from burning in 1944 when he defied Hitler’s orders and did not blow up parts of the city. A new kind of evil in the form of IS has tried to do what he prevented, and we must stand vigilant that this evil’s long trail of murder, going back to the genocide of the Yezidis and others, is finally stopped.
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