Yesterday’s Nice attack is the 10th suspected jihadist attack in France in the last year and a half. More than 200 people have been killed in the three highest-profile incidents: 17 in the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015; 130 in the Paris attacks in November 2015; and at least 84 during the attacks in Nice yesterday. Details are still emerging on the motivations of 31-year-old Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the man police say carried out that attack.
So far, it is known that he was not very religious and had a history of domestic violence. The debate over the broader issues surrounding why France is a particular target for Islamic militants is already in full swing. These are the most prominent explanations.
1. ISIS’s propaganda falls on particularly receptive ears in France. According to the Soufan Group, a New York-based security firm, 1,800 people had left France to join ISIS as of May 2015. That’s one of the highest per-capita rates in Europe. Belgium, which is a partially francophone nation, had the highest rate, with 470 people travelling to join ISIS.
Many experts argue this has to do with the high unemployment rates and social segregation of Muslim youth in France. In the suburbs of Paris, home to millions of Arab and African immigrants, the unemployment rate is over 50 per cent. France’s colonial history is taught cursorily, if at all, in French schools, leaving plenty of room for Islamist groups to offer their explanations for why France has so often been at war against Muslim countries.
George Packer wrote a lengthy profile for The New Yorker in August 2015 titled: “The Other France: Are the suburbs of Paris incubators of terrorism?” Packer outlines the feeling amongst many Muslims of being constantly under attack — whether through government statutes like the 2004 law banning religious symbols in schools, or vigilante violence like the mosques that were fired upon after the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
2. French police are falling down on the job. Ten days ago a committee set up by the French government delivered its report on why France keeps getting attacked. The report pointed to failures in policing. All the French citizens who committed attacks in 2015 (and Lahouaiej-Bouhlel) were previously known to law enforcement. Part of the problem is a lack of cooperation between different branches of law enforcement.
Many militants were radicalized in the French prison systems, where a prison intelligence department of 114 monitors 68,000 inmates and 235,000 parolees with little help from France’s much larger intelligence services. The report also flagged France’s failure to integrate North African immigrants into society and the country’s colonial past as factors making young French people prone to radicalization.
3. ISIS singles out France for its disproportionate military engagement with Islamic militants. Witnesses to the attack on the Bataclan nightclub in Paris said one of the gunmen shouted “This is because of all the harm done by Hollande to Muslims all over the world.”
The gunman was referring to French President François Hollande, who launched airstrikes against ISIS in Syria in September 2015. France has been extremely willing to deploy troops to combat Islamic militants in recent years. In 2015, France had 3,000 troops stationed across Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad in an effort to combat Islamic militants in the Sahel region of Africa as part of Operation Burkhane.
In 2013, France deployed 4,000 troops to Mali to push back al-Qaeda-linked groups that had captured large swaths of territory. France aggressively pushed for a no-fly zone in Libya in 2011. In 2015, Hollande announced he was ready to strike extremists on the Libya border again. ISIS points to France’s aggressive use of military force in recruiting materials and has heralded their past attacks as retaliation for French airstrikes in Syria.
4. “They hate our freedoms,” is how George W. Bush explained the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Writing in the Guardian today, Jason Burke outlines a similar argument. As he puts it: “France is seen as an atheist power which is both defending Western ideals such as human rights, free speech and democracy and, in the eyes of jihadis, trying to impose them on the Islamic world.” Burke argues that militant groups target symbols of French life and ideals—such as making an attack on Bastille Day, a national holiday commemorating the ideals of the French revolution.
Burke’s explanation focuses on France’s history of secularism and the strict limits the country places on religious expression as well as the pride many French people take in things like the Charlie Hebdo magazine that regularly mocks Muslims. U.S. Republican leaders are echoing Bush’s argument, placing the conflict with Islamic militants in civilizational terms.
As Donald Trump’s running mate Mike Pence tweeted: “Today’s terrorist attack in France is a horrific reminder of the threat facing Western civilization. This must end.” Former House Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich put it even more bluntly on Fox News, saying: “Western civilization is in a war. We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background and if they believe in sharia they should be deported.”
Many have argued that framing the conflict in civilizational terms is exactly what ISIS wants, because if everyone has to choose one side or the other ISIS hopes many Muslims, given no other choice, will flock to its cause. Murtaza Hussain has a lengthy explanation for this theory in The Intercept. A comprehensive defence of the “clash of civilizations” theory was penned by Fred Fleitz for the National Review.