As the people of France digest the terror attacks that killed 17 people last week, the country's military is preparing the Charles de Gaulle nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to conduct strikes against the Islamic State group in Iraq. However, France's decision to continue its involvement in U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, which Prime Minister Manuel Valls said was part of France's war with "terrorism, jihadism and radical Islamism" during a speech Tuesday, arrives with the possibility that it could radicalize more Muslims in the country and spawn further homegrown attacks, suggests an expert on the matter.
According to Max Abrahms, a professor at Northeastern University whose work has been published in dozens of scholarly journal articles regarding terrorism, previous attempts by Western governments to stomp out terrorist threats in the Middle East have done more harm than good.
“One of the ironies about the coalition against the Islamic State is that every single member in some way or another contributed to the creation and development of the very group they are fighting against,” said Abrahms. “There’s no question that oftentimes, just as terrorism is counterproductive, counterterrorism is counterproductive too.”
Abrahms says there's a cautionary tale in the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which he says very likely contributed to a new wave of Islamic terrorism. As early as 2006, a U.S. intelligence report known as the National Intelligence Estimate said that the war in Iraq had acted as a "rallying cry" to Muslims worldwide and suggested that extremist Islamic fighters could return to their home countries, “exacerbating domestic conflicts or fomenting radical ideologies.”
The creation of what Abrahms describes as a "power vacuum" in Iraq, referring to Saddam Hussein's removal as the leader of the country, allowed a new terrorist group to form. “Without removing Saddam there would have never been al Qaeda, and without al Qaeda in Iraq there would have been no Islamic State,” Abrahms said.
The French parliament's ratification Tuesday of a proposal to continue the strikes in Iraq, which first began in September 2014, was passed overwhelmingly during a session in the lower house, 488 votes to one.
The growth of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria has been particularly felt in France, which has seen more than 1,000 of its own citizens travel to the two countries to fight for the Islamic State, the highest of any Western country. But the radicalization of Muslims extends beyond just those 1,000 who travelled and fought for extremist organizations in the Middle East.
Indeed, the brothers responsible for the attack on Charlie Hebdo, Cherif and Said Kouchi, did not develop their radical beliefs at ISIS training camps on the banks of Iraq's Tigris River, but instead in the high rises of the 19th arrondissement in northeastern Paris. It was there, in a small apartment, according to a report by the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper, that their radical education began. The third Paris gunman, Amédy Coulibaly, who is of West African descent, was introduced to radicalized Islam while in prison in France, according to the same report.
France's intelligence services were said to be aware of the three men, although no longer considered them a threat, despite the fact that Cherif Kouachi had spent 18 months in prison stemming from a 2005 arrest for trying to board a flight to Iraq to fight against U.S.-led coalition forces. It was during his time in prison, said Jean-Charles Brisard, head of the French Center for the Analysis of Terrorism, that Kouachi became fully radicalized. He was "in prison with other hard-liners, including a central figure in the al Qaeda networks in Europe," Brisard said in a CNN interview.
But France's growing terror threat is not simply a manifestation of the last 13 years of war in the Middle East; it's framed by more than 150 years of colonial rule in West and North Africa. While those colonial days are long gone, they have continued to haunt France. For example, the current conflict in the Central African Republic, which saw Muslims fighting against Christians, prompted France to deploy 1,600 troops to the region, despite having given the country independence more than 50 years ago when it was known as French Equitorial Guinea.
"A generation ago, France would support dictators," explained Harold Hyman, a foreign policy analyst with the French channel BFM TV, in an interview with NPR. "Today, the situation's different. If France does not go into a country that's in destruction and mayhem, there are demonstrations in the street from the diaspora of those countries — 'Why aren't you helping us?' So we've settled into this acceptance of a sort of big-brother role."
Another example of France's tangled history with its former colonies is the the Algerian War, which raged from 1954 until 1962, killing 152,000 people. With around 2 million people of Algerian descent living in France, the highest number of any nationality, there has been continued resentment that has played out prominently in French life. "Decades which saw France denying political rights and using overwhelming force to maintain its colony created a two-tier system which, in simple terms, involved a ruling French class and a servile Algerian one," wrote Nabila Ramdani a freelance journalist and academic in an article for the Guardian.
However, even before the shooting at the offices of satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, attacks by Muslims had taken place across France. Two car assaults in Dijon and Nantes in December, and a recent knife attack against police in Tours, while not acts of organized terrorism, say police, appear to have contributed to the recent wave of Islamaphobia in the country.
During a speech Tuesday at the funeral of three murdered police officers, French President Francois Hollande spoke out against religious discrimination while also confronting the possibility of jihadi terrorists returning to France. “We must be relentless in the face of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts,” said Hollande, “unrelenting in the face of apologists for terrorism and of those who carry it out, and above all, of the jihadists who head for Iraq and Syria and who return afterward.”
But as Hollande tried to steady an outraged French public, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, has used the shootings to push her party’s anti-immigration agenda, saying on the U.K.'s Channel 4 news that France had to "eradicate the cancerous cell that Islamic fundamentalism represents."