21 March 2012

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The shootings in France of young Jewish schoolchildren and French Muslim soldiers have caused much outrage and will focus attention on al-Qaeda’s strategy and influence in France in particular, and in Europe in general. 


We at Quilliam are concerned about the impact of these attacks on the social, political and cultural landscape in Europe, and on relations between different political and religious groups in society.


Ghaffar Hussain, Head of Outreach and Training at Quilliam, says:


‘These attacks have the potential to disrupt national cohesion and inter-faith relations in France at a time when anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment is growing in Europe. It is in al-Qaeda’s interest to harm community relations, but we expect politicians and Muslim leaders in France to show true leadership and help the country pull through this crisis’.


Key Points:


  •  France, despite having the largest Muslim population in Europe, has not traditionally been viewed as a hotbed of Jihadist recruitment and activity. Thus far France has escaped the levels of ‘homegrown’ Islamist terrorism seen in the UK or Germany. This attack could alter that perception and focus the spotlight on Islamist extremist trends in French society.


  •  The suspect, 24 year old Mohammad Merah, is claimed to have received training in Afghanistan; he was apparently arrested there and broke out of a Kandahar prison along with other Taliban fighters. This highlights the importance of the Afghanistan campaign and its impact on Europe. It also illustrates again the limitations of the military approach in ending the drawn out conflict in Afghanistan.


Although this may be the first successful ‘homegrown’ terrorist attack in France linked to al-Qaeda, carried out by a French national born and raised in France, we must not forget that France has been targetted by terrorists many times on its home soil. The vigilance of the French security services has so far kept such major attacks at bay.


This incident is in line with the latest al-Qaeda tactics to encourage lone wolf attacks, much harder to detect and prevent. AQAP has been encouraging such tactics for a while, as did the now deceased Awlaki.


Noman Benotman, Senior Analyst Strategic Communication at Quilliam, says:


‘Al Qaeda has been designing its attacks to specifically affect electoral processes, and their timings are crucial. It is therefore of no surprise that this attack has been planned during a period of intense election campaigning in France.’


These shootings also serve to emphasise important social fault lines that are apparent in any given society. As the far-right terrorist Breivik attempted earlier, al-Qaeda has sought to destabilise these fault lines in Europe for their own gain. 


All governments, no matter how stable or peaceful, must consider their strategy for comprehensively addressing these fault lines in the long term. This needs to be addressed not just from a hard end counter-terrorism approach, but also by looking at citizenship, identity and integration issues related to Muslim and non-Muslim extremism, which is prevalent and rising throughout Europe.