France knows: this is war
“This is an act of war,” French President François Hollande proclaimed after convening his security cabinet on Saturday. Hollande said the Islamic State terror group was responsible for Friday night’s appalling series of terrorist attacks, in which at least 129 people lost their lives, and that the attacks were planned outside of France. “France will be merciless toward the barbarians of the Islamic State group” and “will act with all the means necessary…on all fronts: interior and exterior, in coordination with our allies who themselves are targeted by this threat,” vowed Hollande, who at 4 a.m. spoke with U.S. President Barack Obama over the phone.
France is at war. A countrywide state of emergency was declared along with three days of national mourning. In the upcoming days we will also see many more soldiers in the city of lights. The city’s main tourist attractions and public institutions remained closed Saturday. At least eight terrorists, among them seven suicide attackers, took part in the multi-pronged assault. A manhunt is underway to find the planners and those who provided the attackers with logistical support. The overriding fear is that this isn’t over. There isn’t a dearth of terrorists in France. The jihadists returning from Syria are potential ticking time bombs. The problem is that this is no longer about potential. The terror is already here. France is at war, and not just any war. It’s a religious war: the most dangerous and fanatical kind.
“War in central Paris,” stated the top headline in French newspaper Le Figaro on Saturday. “This time it’s war,” read the headline in Le Parisien. And they expressed what almost every French citizen is saying or thinking. The other headlines in the French press are no less horrific, with words like “massacre” and “slaughter” being used over and over to describe what transpired. On-line social networks were especially busy, and on a new Facebook page named “Attacks in Paris,” people offered to shelter shell-shocked fellow Parisians in their homes. Taxi drivers drove survivors home with the meters turned off. Ever since that terrible war some 70 years ago, France hasn’t known such solidarity.
The entire world is stunned. This was the worst terrorist attack since Madrid in 2004. Then, al-Qaeda was responsible. Now it’s Islamic State. From the Westerner’s perspective, it’s exactly the same ideology. The simultaneous attacks Friday night were no longer aimed at symbolic targets: a Jewish school; the offices of a satire magazine that mocked the Prophet Muhammad; a policeman or soldier in uniform representing the republic. This time the symbol is everyone. The choice of targets explains precisely why France is so anxious: It is a drastic escalation in the degree of carnage, danger, madness, nihilism, and hatred. These attacks were aimed at people. These attacks were blind. France understands today that in the eyes of Islamist jihad, all Frenchmen, all Westerners, are infidels—and no one is immune.
The people of France are struggling to understand how it all happened. They want to know why the attack at the Bataclan concert hall didn’t end with fewer casualties, mainly because it was so reminiscent of the terrorist attack in the Russian city of Beslan in North Ossetia in September 2004. “Ask the Israelis, they will tell you how hard it is to cope with suicide terrorists,” said the commander of the GIGN, France’s elite counterterrorism unit, Amaury de Hauteclocque, who stormed the Bataclan with his men. In the video footage from the scene, the sounds of explosions are clearly discernible. In this day and age everything is videotaped and recorded. From the terrorists’ vantage point, the victory is two-fold: They can kill and also become famous.
The writing was on the wall
“I saw the dead on the floor, I saw body parts,” recounts Sebastien, who managed to escape from the Bataclan theater with his life. “I heard them shouting ‘Allahu akbar—we are avenging the deaths of our brothers in Syria,’” recalls Celine, another survivor. Not far from there, a newspaper salesman and his customers gather, stunned. “That’s it, they’re here,” says one Frenchman who buys all the papers. “I’m buying them for my kids, so they remember the day it all started.”
At Rue de Charonne, the site of the ghastly restaurant shooting that left 18 people dead, stands Luke, a young man who had met some friends for dinner the night before. “I can’t believe a terrorist attack happened right under my home. A Kalashnikov [rifle] right here under my house. Does that make any sense?” he asks bewildered. The fear for French citizens is real and tangible. They saw the footage of the panicked escape from the Bataclan, captured on film by a Le Monde cameraman. The optimists are afraid it’s not over, the pessimists are afraid this is just the beginning, while the realists have become more and more pessimistic.
Much like in the 8th century, secular France is again facing a religious war, but ladies and gentlemen, we are in 2015. We can’t say the writing wasn’t on the wall. We can, of course, use France’s participation in the bombing campaign against Islamic State in Syria as an excuse, but France was already in the crosshairs long ago. France can no longer bury its head in the sand: Islamist jihad has declared war on it and its intention is to kill, deter, terrify, and also conquer if it can. Again, it intends to kill, kill and kill some more; and to die in the process if necessary. We can only wish the French the best of luck, although it won’t be easy: The jihadist invader is already on French soil, and many of his comrades even have French passports. What’s worse, he learned his profession (terrorism) in Syria and Iraq.
“It’s hard to believe all this happened in Paris, that suicide terrorists detonated explosive belts, just like in Beirut a few days ago, just like in the Middle East,” says veteran French anchorman David Pujadas of France 2. Pujadas, who anchored the broadcast following the September 11 attacks in New York, couldn’t believe that 14 years later he would anchor a similar broadcast in Paris.
I was in France during the terror wave in the 1990s. I was also in Toulouse when 23-year-old Mohamed Merah carried out his attack at the Jewish day school; I was there in January after the attacks the Hyper Cacher Jewish supermarket and Charlie Hebdo offices. It seems France always searched for a reason for those attacks, essentially to avoid confronting the truth. One time it was the war in Algeria; another time it was a disagreement with Iran; or a Jewish target; or because Muhammad was ridiculed. France never wanted to truly cope with the truth: The home of Voltaire, Moliere, Balzac, Maupassant, and universal values is in the crosshairs of global jihad. Enough is enough; no more looking for excuses.
Just a reminder: Prior to the January terror attacks were several attacks where the perpetrators yelled “Allahu akbar.” These were discounted as the actions of crazy people. And then January came along, and with it, the terrorist atrocities. We have also recently seen attacks and attempted attacks in Villejuif, south of Paris; on Thalys, the high-speed train operator; and near the city of Lyon. They tried so hard to diminish the severity and implications of these events. France is in a Catch-22: On the one hand it is waging a struggle against the radical ideologies propagated by states (Saudi Arabia and Iran), but the moment these states display a modicum of economic liberalism, France treats them as kosher. Additionally, waging a war against jihad means running the risk of finding yourself in a war against all Muslims, and this is the catch that Islamic State, like al-Qaeda in the past, seeks to exploit today.
And one more word to the West: With all due respect for words and desires for peace, when will you understand that terror is eradicated, not explained and not understood? One of these days, some leaders will have to explain to us how they allowed this monster named Islamic State to grow to such proportions.
Boaz Bismuth is a columnist and correspondent for Israel Hayom.