In the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Trèbes, France on March 23, many aspects of the attack and the ensuing investigation led to a variety of erroneous comments and numerous questions. As many of those comments and questions were addressed to me, I will give some answers here, hoping that they can provide a degree of understanding surrounding this attack.
1. If IS is officially defeated, why was France hit again?
For those who know, there was no doubt that IS’ defeat in Syria and Iraq would not signify the end of the organisation’s offensive capabilities. The attack in Trèbes is therefore unfortunately anything but surprising and whether we like it or not, there are more attacks to come, either in the coming weeks or months (I will address the latter part below).
For now, I will focus on two aspects to frame the attack in Trèbes. First, the ideology and philosophy of IS did not lose its luster despite the losses in Syria and Iraq. It remains very attractive for thousands of people worldwide, people who identify themselves to this ideology and are willing to act in the organisation’s name. For those who cannot discuss directly with former or current IS supporters, reading David Thomson’s excellent “Les revenants” (The Returnees) will enable you to notice how despite their disappointment with the management or the outcome of the “caliphate”, many former members still strongly believe in the ideas promoted by IS. Hence, one quickly understands that as long as the idea exists and is still perceived as a viable and legitimate social alternative by thousands of people, IS will be able to mobilise fighters and will therefore be able to strike where it wants, when it wants.
Second, IS is not defeated. Many of its sympathisers are still fighting in Iraq and Syria. The four African provinces are still very active (IS in Libya, Sinai, Greater Sahel and West Africa (Boko Haram)) and are growing; its groups in the horn of Africa are still active in Somalia and Kenya; the Yemen groups are also slowly expanding, while the central Asian province (Khorasan) group is one of the most dangerous organisations in the region. Finally, the south-east Asia provinces are also very active and expanding. Hence, not only are the ideas of IS alive and well, but it also still has a strong, arguably successful physical presence, which makes IS a substantial military threat.
2. Did the terrorist use “Taqiyya” to deceive France’s security apparatus?
Nothing made public so far suggests the terrorist publicly hid his faith or changed his religious practices to deceive the authorities. He simply took a lower profile, kept his more extremist opinions private or within a very restricted circle. This is a huge difference. He merely adapted to his environment without altering his religious behaviour or values, and therefore we cannot at this point speak of “taqiyya”.
It is also important to bear in mind that the history of terrorism is a game of cat and mouse, a constant battle of adaptation and adjustments between terrorists, security personnel and decision makers. The strategy dictates this dynamic and therefore discretion and patience are a tactical adjustment within the larger strategy.
Unfortunately, it is more likely that failures and a poor evaluation of the threat allowed the attack to occur rather than the terrorist’s “ingenuity”. The truth is that on one hand, many analysts in charge of assessing the threat do so with a frame of mind that is not adapted to the current threat. Whether it is due to a lack of experience or training, many analysts lack a deeper understanding of the problem, which in turn affects their evaluation. On the other hand, the evaluation criteria are often either out of date or simply not adequate to properly assess the threat. Yes, an analysis always carries an amount of risk and leaves room to interpretation, but if the tools used to assess this threat are faulty or missing, the odds that an assessment will be wrong or contain mistakes dramatically increase. And in the field of security, the price of mistakes is measured in the number of victims.
3. Should we expect more attacks this year?
Yes. The history of terrorism clearly shows that it is a streaky phenomenon, alternating between hot (frequent attacks) and cold (large gaps between attack) phases. This is due to a variety of factors, including the attractiveness of a successful attack – desire to mimic, belief an attack can be successful, inspiration – which in turn increases the pressure on the security apparatus, which is often rapidly overwhelmed by the amount of threats. As such, the gaps and deficiencies in the security apparatus widen, thereby increasing the chances errors will occur, and because western countries have been in “catch-up” mode for the better part of this decade, not to say century, when it comes to terrorism, not much is required to expose the problems and deficiencies of the system.
4. What to make of the targets in Trèbes?
The concept of “soft target” is too often used as a catch-all label to explain the choice of terrorist targets. It is more relevant to discuss the value of the target for the terrorist. Furthermore, the distinction between “civilian” and “institutional” is also an analysis that no longer appropriately explains the choice and quality of the targets. We need to go beyond this analysis.
Terrorism is political, and it is a battle against representations and symbols of a perceived or real threat. A terrorist does not target civilians, it targets citizens. It targets French, American, westerners or any other individual the terrorist considers to be a representation of this threat. The distinction between the police officer in uniform (oppressor) and the police officer out of uniform (victim of the system) that Ulrike Meinhof made in 1970 is gone. The perception that now prevails is that a civilian is a citizen, hence a representative of a state, of a system and as such this person becomes a legitimate target for terrorists. A citizen is responsible for the actions of its government, as Mohammed Siddique Khan reminded people in his suicide message after the 7/7 attacks in London. This is a full political objectification, and this is why a terrorist can attack during the same spree both “classic” targets (the jogging CRS) and “modern” targets (the customers of the supermarket).
What the terrorist attack in Trèbes publicly reveals is that the “caliphate’s defeat” in Syria and Iraq did not put an end to the threat. The attack is in full continuity with what we have seen over the last six years, and which we will have to deal with in the decades to come. This is a generational problem that will not go away or be solved anytime soon.
It would therefore be well advised that decision makers stop making outrageous declarations pertaining to the “end” or “reduction” of the terrorist threat. It would also be well advised that decision makers refrain from a bombastic martial discourse aimed not at trying to solve the problem but to acquire maximum short-term political capital. By doing so, you only show that you fail to grasp the problem. If you wonder how it should be done, have a look at how French attorney general François Molins does things. You will learn much.
In closing, I would like to discuss the heroic act of colonel Arnaud Beltrame during the attacks in Trèbes. I grew up in a family with firefighters, police officers, military personnel and field medics, and I became even more familiar with that environment since I began working in the field of counter-terrorism. I am well placed to say that what he did was neither “typical” nor “customary” to his profession, and that very few people have the extraordinary vocational understanding to be willing to sacrifice their lives and well-being to save the lives of others. Arnaud Beltrame was able to do this because he understood that the true duty of his profession was to protect and save lives, even if it cost him his. He knew full well what was waiting for him and that he likely was not going to come out alive, when he proposed to be traded for a hostage, and yet he still did it. This particular form of abnegation and altruism is not for everyone.
Thank you for your courage colonel. May it inspire your colleagues and generations to come.