France, which has been hit by deadly terror attacks twice this year, is paying the price for its front-line role in combating Islamic militants.
French special forces have been tracking Islamist militants in the Sahara since 2013. France was the first European country to join the U.S. air strikes on Islamic State in Iraq last year and is the only European country to join the U.S. in air strikes in Syria.
“This attack is linked to our engagement in Syria and Iraq, to our engagement in the Sahel,” Louis Caprioli, the ex-head of DST, France’s former anti-terrorism unit, and now an adviser to Paris-based security consultants Groupe GEOS, said in a telephone interview.
Last night, 127 people in Paris were killed and more than 200 wounded in coordinated assaults on cafes, a soccer match and a concert hall. It’s the largest number of deaths in a terrorist attack on a Western country since the 2004 bombings at train stations in Madrid that killed 191. The attacks follow 17 murders the French suffered at the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine and a kosher supermarket in January.
“It was an act of war that was prepared and organized abroad, and with complicity” from individuals in France, French President Francois Hollande said Saturday. Islamic State said in a posting on Twitter that eight of its suicide bombers carried out the attacks.
France sent troops to Mali in January 2013 to prevent the country falling to an al-Qaeda affiliate based in the Sahel, as the southern rim of the Sahara is called. That intervention has now been transformed into a mission covering Niger and Chad to prevent Islamic militants based in southern Libya from destabilizing the area. French forces work closely with the U.S. which flies drones over the region from a shared based in Niger.
France joined U.S. air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq in September 2014, before any other European country. A year later, France extended its air strikes to Syria and has bombed an Islamic State training camp and oil facilities. France has nine Rafale jets based in Abu Dhabi and has sent six Mirage 2000’s to Jordan. The Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier is scheduled to leave this week for a second tour of duty in the region.
“Contemporary activity by France makes them a tier-one target,” said Thomas M. Sanderson, director of Washington D.C.-based Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They’re not the primary actor from the air, we are, but they are much more reachable than the U.S. is.”
Hollande said that France will combat Islamic State “in all ways” at home and abroad.
In an Odaxa poll published Sept. 7 in Le Parisien, 61 percent of the French said they favor an intervention by ground troops in Syria.
“France will probably deepen its involvement in anti-Islamic State operations in Syria and Iraq at a time when the Syrian battlefield in particular is becoming crowded and complicated,” risk analysts Stratfor said in a note to clients.
The identities of the eight attackers who died in last night’s attack aren’t known. But there are 571 French residents with radical Islamic Groups in Syria now and 141 have died there, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Nov. 12. Another 370 have been arrested upon their return and domestic security forces are following 11,000 people, he said.
This isn’t the first time France’s involvement abroad has led to terrorism at home. In 1995, Algerian Islamists set off eight bombing attacks that killed eight people and wounded 200 in Paris to punish France for supporting the government in that country’s civil war. And European settlers who wanted to keep Algeria part of France carried out attacks in the early 1960’s, including attempts to assassinate President Charles de Gaulle.
“For 20 years we have fought this Salafist doctrine,” Caprioli said.