Everybody reading this will be depressingly accustomed to terrorism on the continent by this point. The Brussels bombings were less than a week ago, and towards the tail end of last year our news headlines were dominated by the attacks on Paris. On November 13th, in the early hours of the night, armed gunmen co-ordinated with a handful of suicide bombers across the capital to leave 130 people dead and 352 injured. It was by far the bloodiest terror attack in France’s history. The reaction just across the channel was shock intimately twinned with the creeping sensation that this could have easily been the UK. The videos of concert-goers diving for cover in the Bataclan and armed police sheltering behind telephone boxes and cars in the streets felt so real because they so easily could have been filmed in London or Manchester. In spite of the London and Madrid bombings of 2004/5 respectively, there is still the presumption that attacks of this scale belong in Lebanese and Syrian markets; not the modern metropolises of Western Europe. As a result it seems pertinent to now ask the question, what is the chance of similar attacks happening in the UK? For the sake of simplicity, I’ll be comparing just Britain and France.
International Histories and Border Defence
Perhaps the first point to consider, is the extent to which the UK and France are terrorist targets. Counter-terrorism scholar Frank Foley characterises modern Islamic extremism as ‘united’ by the ideology that the global Muslim ummah (or community) is under attack by the West. The framing is that of a civilizational conflict, ironically quite similar to the perceptions of European far right extremists: that the West is currently at war, and incompatible with, the peoples and values of Islam. The aspect of this belief that is most critical, and is most frequently mentioned in the video diaries of suicide bombers, is what some perceive to be the West’s invasion of Muslim territories. In this respect Britain and France are firmly implicated. The UK waged multiple bloody campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan between the mid 90’s and the present day, and historically draws ire for occupying Palestine during the early 20th century and handing over a sizeable chunk of it to the new Jewish state of Israel. Indeed Osama Bin Laden described the UK as part of an unholy ‘crusader alliance’; along with the aforementioned Jewish state and the US. France, though it abstained from invading Iraq in 2003, did enter into Afghanistan and is resented for its historical role in colonising and controlling large swathes of Muslim North Africa: as recently as 1992 France was seen as propping up the authoritarian dictatorship in Algeria. As a result, France too was branded a crusader nation by Bin Laden and declared ‘enemy number one’ by the AQIM: Al Qaeda’s North African branch.
This particular form of resentment against the West recurs time and time again as the stated motivation behind terror attacks: be it the 7/7 bombings that brought London to its knees or the three day killing spree of Mohammed Merah in Toulouse and Montauban. Clearly the rhetoric of Al Qaeda has taken hold in the imaginations of some Muslims (many of them homegrown) and as a result hundreds of terror plots have been foiled in both France and the UK. In addition, the fact that both have recently committed to airstrikes on Syrian soil is likely to further bolster the narrative that they are at war with the global Muslim community, and further increase the extent to which they are targets for Islamic extremism. Hence although the precise degree to which a country is perceived to be a target is hard to quantify, it seems clear that Britain and France are both high priority targets. As a result we cannot meaningfully separate them based on the degree of hostility they receive from global terror networks and say that one is clearly more at risk of being attacked than the other for this reason alone.
Perhaps instead the differing attitudes to border security which dictate national safety in each one? France has vast land borders with a host of European countries and has long been part of EU’s Schengen zone, which allows uninterrupted movement to and from any of these states; whilst the UK has its tried and tested English Channel as a natural barrier and also imposes passport checks and searches on incoming ferries. Whilst we cannot assume that this in itself makes the UK safe since the IRA brought scores of attacks to mainland Britain in the 1970’s and 2000’s, and the majority of Islamic extremists are similarly homegrown; this certainly has an impact when it comes to logistics of terror operations. Most of the victims in Paris’ recent attacks were shot dead by guns that are suspected to have been smuggled across the border from Belgium: a state long considered home to a thriving black market trade in weapons. It is hard to imagine such a plan working in the UK – with its tighter travel security, and indeed none of the Islamic terrorist attacks on UK soil have ever used guns. It seems entirely plausible to draw some link between Britain’s more stringent border protection and the lack of gun use in terror attacks and say that whilst this border security does not nullify the possibility of attacks it may very well change the way they are carried out. Any attempts to recreate the Paris attacks in the UK would be incredibly likely to focus on explosives and not make use of firearms.
The quantity of terrorist incidents
Hence although the way in which terrorism is committed in each country might vary, we would expect, on the basis of the last two factors; the overall threat level to be similar in the UK and France. Looking at the statistics however tells a dramatically different story. France, although it had a long spell without any terror attacks (2007-2012) has had 15 radical Islamist ones in the past five years, including seven in 2015 alone and two already in 2016 – less than three months in. The UK in contrast has had just two Islamic attacks in the last five years. There have been nearly ten times as many attacks in France as in the UK, and the French figure is only rising faster and faster.
Clearly there must be very real differences between the two countries, and when we look at policing in both of them we begin to tease out possible explanations. In Britain domestic counter-terror operations are largely divided between MI5 and the police. On the whole MI5 is responsible for gathering intelligence and the police take on physically preventing terrorist plans from taking place. This clear division of labour is a much praised aspect of UK law enforcement, and contributes to MI5 and the police force communicating well and foiling a large number of terrorist operations. In contrast, France splits counter-terror between its main intelligence agency: the DCRI and its Police Judiciaire much less clearly. Both have the right to be involved in monitoring and intervening in terrorist activities, and both feel that they want to take responsibility for these areas. However the DCRI, reformed and expanded in 2007, has far more resources allocated to counter terror (3000 operatives overall, whereas the counter-terror branch of the French police can spare only 100 officers per case) and a much better database for tackling it. It sees the whole of terror prevention as its jurisdiction alone. Given that there have been no court mandates separating the roles of each organisation however, the police have explicitly aspired to try and win back counter-terror operations from the DCRI: former head Marine Monteil making this one of her stated aims upon appointment in 2005.
In practice this creates a fierce competition between the two agencies and, no doubt much to the disappointment of fundamentalist neoliberals; this hasn’t been a good thing. Interviews with police officers say that there is ‘no gentleman’s agreement’ but rather ‘war’ between the two agencies and that the ‘supposed…synergy’ between the DCRI and police has been negatively impacted. The result is that the two agencies, in contrast to MI5 and the UK police, rarely share information and compete over who gets to store which intelligence files. In real terms Foley argues that this has potentially hampered the French capacity to respond to terrorist incidents and indeed in the aforementioned case of Mohammed Merah, who killed six people over three days in 2012; it has been asserted that poor intelligence sharing between the DCRI and Judiciaire prevented the shooter from being identified early into his spree. We can suggest therefore that the very structure of policing itself in France, with infighting and competition between agencies, hamstrings the effectiveness of counter-terror operations and puts its citizens at risk.
The second crucial difference between the French and British counter terrorist agencies is the rate at which prosecutions and arrests take place. In France there is an incredibly close relationship between the courts and intelligence agencies, with one unnamed magistrate boasting that the magistrates and prosecuting intelligence officers often go jogging together in an informal display of cordiality that is forbidden in the UK court system. This direct link between the judges and prosecutors allows evidence to be shared much more quickly and easily between the DCRI and the courts, and means that the number of arrests and prosecutions on terrorist charges is greater in France than the UK. Furthermore, French law surrounding terrorism is far harsher than UK law. Current UK legislation was formulated in a post-IRA context, in which officials saw how the physical coercion and indiscriminate internment of suspects in Northern Ireland had actually alienated and provoked further attacks from the Catholic population; and decided to make current anti-terror measures more targeted and less harsh on suspects. Defendants would now typically be tried in normal court settings and in front of a jury, as opposed to being interrogated by the military.
In France however the state is free to arrest suspects indiscriminately, with mass arrests in Muslim neighbourhoods not uncommon, and the trials are set up especially for cases of suspected terrorism: juries are not always required and defendants can be prosecuted under the vague charge of ‘association’ (association de malfaiteurs), which allows for the prosecution of anyone connected to a potential terrorist network. This latter charge has been used for arrest and/or prosecution in the majority of terror cases and has come under fierce criticism from Human Rights Watch and the International Federation of Human Rights for the vagueness of its wording. As defence attorney Jean-Jacques de Felice put it ‘You are the cousin of the cousin of the cousin of someone who’s done something, so you are in an association de malfaiteurs. The concept is very vague. It’s the law itself that’s dangerous… [and] the defence becomes impossible.” Furthermore the security services have long had the power to deport convicted suspects before they have the right to appeal and put people under house arrest under suspicion of terrorist proclivities under what Human Rights Watch terms a ‘low threshold of proof’ and ‘unverifiable intelligence reports’. These powers have only grown post-Paris, as the entire country has been placed in a state of emergency until ISIL is defeated. This has made house arrest even easier to ordain and has granted Police the authority to raid homes, businesses and mosques without a warrant. This is not to say that there are no harsh measures in Britain: there are certain governmental detainment powers that have attracted a lot of criticism; but on the whole the judicial situation is more balanced and the harshest powers are seldom used.
The picture that emerges is one of a more organisationally disjointed, but harder hitting counter-terrorism framework in France. As much as internal strife in its agencies can render its responses impotent at times, it carries out more arrests and hands out harsher sentences. On the surface this might seem a good thing, a strong deterrent to potential terrorists; but the reality is far more complex. We could suggest that such a response actually fuels radicalisation.
Muslim communities in the two countries
Radicalisation among Islamic extremists is a poorly understood phenomenon but the most comprehensive report on the matter is that of MI5’s behavioural science unit in the wake of 7/7. Surprisingly enough an individual’s level of education, economic situation, status of family/friend ties or even ethnic background were not significant predictors. The influence of radical preachers was also found to be diminutive and Ali Rattansi in his introduction to multiculturalism adds that terrorists are not more likely to come from ethnically segregated neighbourhoods than cohesive ones, putting flight to the common concern that British Muslims lead ‘parallel lives’ and are at risk of radicalisation via alienation. What did emerge is that terrorists are likely to be male, novices when it comes their religion; and accepting of the discourse of a civilizational war between the West and Islam. The last two of these reasons hold potential relevance when considered in relation to French counter-terrorist policy.
Foley argues that the ‘more draconian aspects of the [French] system have undermined confidence in the legitimacy of the French state among sections of the Muslim community’ and it is not hard to see why. The regular midnight raids into the heart of France’s Muslim Banlieues: into shops, houses, places of worship, the special judicial conditions that allow the government near total control over prosecution and deportation; and the prospect of a constant state of emergency until ISIS is defeated. These are not the targeted strategies of a state dealing with individual criminals, these are the sweeping actions of a state at war. In treating terrorism as an act of war within its borders that merits special police powers and courts to deal with it, the government risks supporting the terrorists’ extremist narrative that the West is in fierce conflict with Islam. The harsh treatment of entire communities leads to the feeling that ‘the fact of sporting a beard, praying, reading the Koran makes you suspect. Muslims know that every word, every gesture, is interpreted within a context of permanent suspicion’ (Kamel Kabtane, rector of the Grand Mosque in Lyon.) There is the sense that France is clamping down on Islam as a whole, and perhaps it is unsurprising that Rattansi reports 78% of British Muslims feel British, while just 49% of French Muslims do. It is certainly plausible to suggest that a considerable number of French Muslims feel second class citizens in their country, treated harshly by the state; and thus that narratives of the West being opposed Islam seem more and more reasonable. This may in turn lead to more radicalised individuals, and potentially more terror attacks at a national level.
Furthermore, the raids and ease of prosecution in France creates a culture of anxiety in mosques and Islamic teaching centres. Azzedine Gaci, Lyon representative of Regional Council of the Muslim Creed, feels that ‘They instill fear in [Muslim] associations and imams, so much fear that they don’t know what they can say in their sermons. The imams do less and less in the mosques, they don’t want to deal with young people, so they turn them away, and they can become radicalized.’ As the British intelligence report highlighted, religious novices: recent converts or those brought up in less religious households; are actually at higher risk of radicalisation. Less sure of their religion and what it entails they are more susceptible to new, different and extreme interpretations of Islam. Indeed MI5’s report found that having a secure religious identity acted as a buffer against extremism.
While the causation in the case of radicalisation and indeed any social phenomenon are difficult to tease out, we can suggest that two consequences of French legislation: the feeling of persecution in Muslim communities and the disruption of teaching in mosques; might contribute to radicalisation. Young French Muslims feel under attack from the state and lack guidance from religious leaders, and as such are more likely to sympathise with dangerous ideas about the West being fundamentally at odds and at war with Islam. This could translate into more attacks being carried out on French soil and go some way to explaining the difference between the French and British statistics.
As such we might conclude that the likelihood of Islamic terror attacks, like those committed in Paris, occurring is greater in France than in the UK. France’s ability to respond to terrorism is hampered by unproductive competition between agencies and might in fact aggravate the problem when it comes to depicting its battle against terrorism as a war on Islam and disrupting Islamic teaching. Hence there is an astonishing discrepancy of late in the rate at which attacks are carried out in each country. Furthermore the nature of attacks in the UK and France may very well differ, with guns being far harder to obtain in the former. However we must be careful to also stand back from the legislatory minutiae of each country and consider the broader picture. The UK and France are both still enemies of radical Islam: vilified amongst the jihadi ranks of Al Qaeda, ISIS and others for their historical and contemporary attacks on Muslim countries; and as such both are under high threat. Hence for those of us in the UK, we can take a modicum of comfort from the fact that an attack is less likely to happen here than in France, but we have to remain vigilant to the fact that it is a very real possibility.