Why Paris

A city in mourning, for the second time in one year.
A city in mourning, for the second time in one year.
Image: Reuters/ Christian Hartmann
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The killings in Paris on Nov. 13 were the second terrorist-inspired attacks to hit the French capital in less than a year. For the City of Light, the images of terror, of deserted neighborhoods, of bloodshed and military police on the streets, are becoming sickeningly familiar. It has also faced a beheading linked to ISIL and a failed train shooting this year. In fact, France has a long history of terrorist attacks on its soil. And ISIL has announced that France “will remain at the top of Islamic State’s list of targets.”

How did it become such a persistent focus for extremists?

Of course, there is no justification for such depraved acts, and we cannot know the individual motives that drove each attacker to pick up guns and bombs, and commit mass murder. But there are several reasons why France has become the enemy of Islamic terrorist groups.

France has taken strong action in Syria

France has taken a prominent role in the west’s response to civil war in Syria. The government has long insisted that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad step down, and in September French President François Hollande announced the country would begin airstrikes in Syria. Less than a week before the Paris attack, a two-hour French airstrike targeted one of ISIL’s key sources of funding by bombing an Islamic State oil distribution center in Syria.

France has also taken action against Islamic terrorists in Western and Central Africa, and has carried out 1,300 attacks in Iraq.

The Paris shooters were heard shouting, “This is for Syria” as they fired their guns and, in their statement released after the Paris attack, the Islamic State warned France that, “the smell of death won’t leave their noses as long as they partake in their crusader campaign.”

Hollande has responded by calling the attack an “act of war” and vowing that France “will be merciless against the terrorists.”

A disempowered Muslim population

France is home to an estimated 4.7 million Muslims, the highest proportion of Muslims in any country in western Europe. This population is highly segregated from the rest of French society; in Paris, many Muslims live in the city’s suburbs, known as banlieues.

Tension between France and its Muslim population is strong and historic, rooted in the country’s colonial activities and its treatment of French Algerians. In 1961, shortly before Algeria became independent, French police murdered up to 300 Algerian protesters. The French government has never apologized, the subject is not taught in schools, and this violent history is still largely ignored.

Today, discrimination, poor employment opportunities, poverty, and isolation are all common in Paris’s banlieues. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the New Yorker asked if the suburbs of Paris had become “incubators of terrorism”.

France’s poor relations with its Muslim community mean that the country is vulnerable to homegrown attackers. ISIL is able to call on French Muslims to attack their home country with apparent ease and effectiveness. At least three of the suicide bombers on Friday were French, according to officials.

And France’s emphasis on secular values has led it to introduce national laws that are seen by some Muslims as an attack on their religious freedom. The burqa is banned, hijabs are not allowed in public spaces, and children have been told that their school lunch option is “pork or nothing.” In the eyes of some devout Muslims, these policies make France an enemy of Islam.

Winning a media war: The attention that comes from shutting down Paris

There was an outpouring of international support in response to the Paris attacks and, in comparison, relatively little global attention following the terrorist attacks in Beirut just one day earlier. A Facebook safety check was activated for people in Paris, but not for those in Beirut. World landmarks lit up in the colors of the French flag, not Lebanon’s. And the victims in Beirut felt that the world had ignored their suffering.

It’s uncomfortable to consider that the West may value French lives over Lebanese, but ISIL counted on just such a global response to its attack on Paris. The city is one of the most beautiful, beloved, and visited cities in the world, after all.

James LeSueur, history professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a focus on France, terrorism, and radical Islam, tells Quartz that ISIL knew a Paris attack would generate headlines.

“This is a media war, and those who carried out this attack knew there was going to be an immediate response. It’s clear that’s what they’re going for, and they benefit from that media saturation,” he says.

An intelligence network that seems to be struggling

The events of the past year suggest that France’s counter-terrorism network has a few gaps. Of course it’s impossible to stop every single attack, especially those committed by lone wolves. But attacks on the scale of Friday’s shootings and those against Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket in January take detailed planning, and its worrying that both were able to come to fruition.

“Anything is possible, but the complexity of the attacks, the armaments that they had suggests that it’s not merely inspiration or activating a local cell,” Will McCants, author of The ISIS Apocalypse, told Business Insider. “It suggests that at least some of the people had training in a theater of war or in ISIL-controlled territory.”

In the UK, where there is also a sizable Muslim population and considerable anxiety that London will be next, police have so far managed to thwart major attacks. UK authorities are currently investigating 600 terror cases linked to Syria and Iraq, and Scotland Yard commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe said on Saturday that police are working “flat out” to prevent a similar attack in the UK, making an arrest a day on average.

France does have a significant disadvantage, as there’s no body of water separating the country from Eastern Europe, which makes it more difficult for authorities to counter arms trafficking from the region.

But there are also gaps in the official response to the threat of radicalization. France’s prison population is estimated to be 70% Muslim, for example, yet relatively few professional imams are available to visit prisons and give spiritual guidance to inmates. With so many Muslims isolated and ignored in jail, prisons are becoming “breeding grounds for radicalization,” according to a Telegraph report. Yet officials only began a new prison anti-radicalization program in February, following the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

It’s impossible to create absolute protection from terrorist groups and attacks are possible everywhere. But after two major killing sprees in Paris this year, the city knows all too well that it could, horrendously, find itself the target again.

Follow Quartz’ coverage of the Paris attacks here.