For the past week France has been beating the drums of a “total war on terror” that sound similar to those in post-9/11 United States. But French troops have been battling Islamist militants on the ground in Africa’s Sahel region for months, and the recent attacks in Paris aren’t likely to prompt another ground invasion in Iraq or Syria.
Two weeks after linked attacks at the Charlie Hebdo offices and the Hyper Cacher kosher market killed 17 people, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced that France would implement “exceptional” measures to tackle terrorism. Though it is still committed to the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group, the new counterterrorism initiatives will focus on the country’s internal terrorism problem, by eliminating the threat of foreign fighters trained by jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria and fortifying its borders within the European Union.
“ISIS is not the first threat [to France], but it definitely is one threat,” said Stéphanie Pezard, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation whose work focuses on the Sahel region. “What they’re really worried about are French fighters in Iraq and Syria.”
Over the next three years, France has a planned 425 million-euro budget ($490 million) to increase its counterterrorism capabilities. The government will create 2,680 new jobs in the counterterrorism sector, split between its various ministries, including intelligence and finance, Valls announced Wednesday. In addition, the government will commence the “profound” monitoring of nearly 3,000 people with suspected ties to terrorism.
The number of people with links to terrorist groups in France increased 130 percent since last year, according to Valls. Nearly 1,000 French nationals have traveled to Iraq and Syria and joined terrorist groups like ISIS and al Qaeda. This is the highest number of any country in the EU, although Belgium has the highest number per capita, with an estimated 300 fighters from a population of 11.4 million.
Belgium is less than two hours away from France, and under the Schengen Agreement, anyone holding a passport issued by an EU member nation can cross the border without a security check. Terrorists have been taking advantage of this for years. In 2000, al Qaeda members from a German cell reportedly hid from French authorities in London while planning a bombing at the Strasbourg Christmas market in France, according to an article by Stephen Ulph published by Jamestown Foundation, a global research organization focusing on foreign policy.
“It doesn’t look like free movement within the Schengen area is something people are willing to give up,” Penard said. “A number of measures are being implemented at the EU level, like increased border support outside Schengen territory.”
Without monitored borders in the EU, France’s internal war on terror must be fought with the cooperation of the 27 other member countries, especially when it comes to intelligence sharing and monitoring those with suspected ties to terrorism.
“European cooperation on counterterrorism has been hampered by the fact that ... counterterrorism policy remains a national responsibility,” wrote Angel Rabasa and Cheryl Benard in Eurojihad, a book on radicalization patterns in Europe. “The EU’s role is limited to promoting consultation and coordination of the counterterrorism activities of member states.”
Later this week, the EU is set to unveil a “new era of travel surveillance,” which may include giving countries access to the central databases of air passenger name records, something France has been backing for a while.
Though all EU member nations, and many members of the anti-ISIS coalition, share the threat of foreign fighters from Iraq and Syria returning home, France also has a different terror threat to deal with in Northern Africa.
France has led its own coalition to fight a different terror threat in Northern Africa, an entire region under threat from Islamist groups, French Defense Minister Jean-YvesLe Drian said earlier this year. Roughly 3,000 French troops were deployed to Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Chad last July as part of Operation Barkhane, the follow-up to an 18-month operation to fight Islamists in Mali. For now, France has dedicated its ground forces to battling the North African Islamists rather than those in Iraq and Syria
“The number of troops is decreasing and there is only so much they can do without being stretched too thin,” Pezard said. “Groups in Mali have been targeting France for a while and would strike if they got the chance.”