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New Trends in European Terrorism: The case of France

23 Jun 2021

New Trends in European Terrorism: The case of France

23 Jun 2021

European Context

The 2017 fall of Raqqa changed everything. While Daesh held territory and could claim quasi-state status, its propaganda appeal was so great that it transcended its European base from young disenfranchised Muslims living in urban banlieues to rebellious French adolescents who, radicalized by Daesh internet videos and postings, discovered a sudden jihadist zeal despite having no previous connections to Islam whatever.[1] In a stroke, Daesh returned to its beginnings as a loosely connected network with a sophisticated social media reach and an apocalyptic appeal.

The threat to Europe posed by Daesh by 2017 was diminished but far from eliminated. Daesh propaganda continued to impact Europe, inspiring acts of terror it could no longer organize of direct. The fall of Raqqa left hundreds of European citizens in a limbo of prisons in the region while women and children, many of whom were born during the conflict, remain in detention with little prospect of repatriation. But perhaps the greatest threat is indirect and unintentional. The conflict in Syria has pushed masses of refugees into Europe, igniting nationalist and right wing movements that have roiled European electoral politics and vastly increased street level violence that has taken both terrorist and criminal forms.

The Western War on Terror and the 2011 killing of Osama Bin Laden had already reduced Al Qaeda to more of a brand than an organization with global reach. However, its influence continues to pose a threat to some European states.

In 2020 Europol identified nine trends in Western European terrorism:

  1. The number of terrorist attacks declined in 2019 and continues to decline;
  2. Throughout the EU, there were only 7 Islamist terrorist attacks were carried out in 2019;
  3. Fighters in the Syrian conflict continued to pose dilemmas for western policy makers while Daesh and Al Qaeda continued to pose a threat;
  4. Radicalized inmates in prisons pose a potential threat;
  5. In 2019, there were 6 right wing terrorist attacks, but only 1 was successful;
  6. The right-wing terrorist attacks in Christchurch (New Zealand), Paway (USA), El Paso (USA) and Halle (Germany) were mutually supporting and inspired other mass killings;
  7. Jihadist and right-wing propaganda reinforce each other and support perpetrators of terrorist violence;
  8. Ethno-nationalist terror generally declined, but Turkish and IRA groups remained active; and
  9. Left wing and anarchist groups attempted 26 attacks, all in Greece, Italy and Spain.[2]

By 2021, terrorist violence in Europe stems from four primary causes: Right wing, left wing, Islamist and ethnic. All four are present in France. Yet France is in other ways unique, and presents a worst case scenario in countering terrorist and communal violence.

Terrorism in France: 2015

On 7 January 2015 an attack on the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo was quickly followed two days later by an assault on the Hypercacher kosher market. Ten were killed at the Hebdo offices while four were killed at the market. The attack on the magazine was the culmination of a long struggle which saw the offices burned and the website hacked over Charlie Hebdo’s publication of cartoons and text crudely attacking Islam and Prophet Mohammad. The magazine claimed that it was not Islamophobic, but rather were defenders of laïcité or French secularism.[3] The Jewish market was chosen at random simply because it was Jewish. The leaders of the Charlie Hebdo attack were connected to Al Qaeda while the Hypercacher killings were orchestrated by adherents of Daesh.

These attacks began a series of terrorist attacks that spanned all of 2015:

  • 3 February, attack on a Jewish center in Nice;
  • 19 April, attack on churches in Villejuif;
  • 26 June a driver in Saint-Quentin-Fallavier beheaded and an attempt made to bomb a gas factory; and
  • 21 August mass shooting on a train in Thalys.[4]

The campaign culminated with the events of 13 November 2015. At 9:20 pm on that night, a suicide bomber unsuccessfully attempted to enter the Stade de France stadium in Saint-Denis. France and Germany were playing and the President of France, François Hollande, was in attendance. Although police were able to stop the bomber, his device exploded killing one. Minutes after the Stade de France attack, multiple night spots were struck in the 10th and 11th districts. An assault team first entered the Le Carillon bar, fired AK-47s into the crowd, then crossed the street and fired into Le Petit Cambodge, a Cambodian restaurant. Fifteen were killed in the two businesses.

Five minutes later, a second suicide bomber tried to strike the Stade de France stadium, but he too was stopped before he could enter the facility, inflicting no casualties. Meanwhile, the shooters from the Le Carillon killings conducted drive by shootings at businesses along rue de la Fontaine au Roi. Two restaurants, the La Casa Nostra, the Café Bonne Bière, and a laundromat were fired upon, inflicting mass casualties. A suicide bomber then detonated his belt outside the La Belle Équipe, but wounded only one person.

The carnage culminated with the horrific killings at the Bataclan Club, a venerable rock concert venue, in which the Eagles of Death Metal were playing. No less than three suicide bombers detonated inside the Bataclan. 89 were killed immediately and scores were wounded.[5]

November 2015 was the height of organized terrorism in France. In its aftermath, the nature of the violence changed, reverting to lone wolf tactics and employing at best makeshift weapons or using vehicles to drive into crowds. But the attacks and the trials that followed brought the cleavages in French society into sharp relief.

A Tale of Two States: Separate and Unequal

Tourists from around the world have flocked to France to experience the thriving culture of its cities, the delights of French cuisine and wines, and the stunning beauty of its countryside. Few however, dare to venture into its cités, the suburban slums that house much if its Muslim population, drawn primarily from North Africa and to a much lesser extent, Turkey, the Muslim communities have grown distinctly separate from the French mainstream. While most contemporary observers attribute this separation to racism and Islamophobia, its roots are far deeper. As the early waves of North African immigrants arrived in the 1950s and early 1960s, France was emerging from colonial conflicts, most notably the bloody struggle in Algeria that opened in 1954 and ended with French withdrawal in 1962. Such was the bitterness of the struggle that more than forty years later, King Hassan of Morocco actively discouraged Moroccan immigrants from integrating into French society.[6] Some highly touted government programs to the contrary, the French for their part have been less than eager to integrate North African Muslims. The cités are thus relegated to the ravages of poverty, drugs and crime that is the lot of communities of exclusion the world over. They are thus ideal breeding grounds for radicalization and terrorist recruitment. While Daesh and Al Qaeda are the best known recruiters, the Muslim Brotherhood is quietly perhaps most effective and benefits from funding from Qatar and Turkey, while the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) and the Ankara supported Grey Wolves, a far right groups whose interests coincide with those of the radical Islamists, also remain active in the cites.[7]

The widespread, and not inaccurate, perception that Islam is under attack in France makes the job of terrorist recruiters all the easier. Where Charlie Hebdo waved the flag of laïcité and portrayed Islam as a threat to the secular state, the vicious attacks on Prophet Mohammad and the faith were not mirrored with, for example, demeaning cartoons about Jews as portrayed in such as the Protocols of Zion. Anti-Semitic portrayals are illegal in France, and in 2019 a group of French law makers proposed defining anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism, and thus making such expressions also illegal.[8]

The anti-hijab law is of the same ilk. The controversy began with the expulsion of three Muslim schoolgirls who refused to remove their hijabs during classes in the small town of Criel in 1989. Similar actions were taken haphazardly in various town in the following few years. Here too, the flag of laïcité was raised as justification, but underlying this was the publicly stated belief that a stand had to be taken against “an insidious jihad.”[9] Islam and the misunderstood concept of jihad were being increasingly equated as being synonymous with terrorism. In 2011 a law was passed, ostensibly banning full face coverings, but applied to head scarves as well. The modification was needed to exclude religious markers associated with Judaism in particular—Orthodox Jewish women also cover their hair. But in the case of Muslim women, the distinction was of little note. The ban remained in effect ironically enough, even when face masks were required in response to the COVID pandemic.[10]

Terrorism 2017-2019

Terrorism in France peaked with the spectacular multiple operations of 2015-2016. By 2017, a vastly increased French security presence coupled with the fall of Raqqa brought terrorist strikes down to lone wolf operations inspired but not directed by foreign terrorist groups, small cells or very small kinship-based groups. The Global Terrorism Database lists 75 incidents that can be clearly identified as terrorism in France in these years. They stemmed from:

Islamist causes-20                                           Various-12

Right wing-12                                                 Ethnic- 4

Left wing-4                                                     Unknown-23

The weapons used in these attacks were small and easily obtained. 27 people died in these attacks and 89 were injured.[11]

A Beheading in France

Between 2014-2019, France recorded the most Daesh related deaths in the world, followed by Belgium and the United States. But in 2019, there was only one Daesh related death in all of Europe.[12] The statistics would seem positive enough, but terrorism is not a war of statistics, it is a contest between ideas and a war of perceptions. On October 16, 2020 the war of perceptions took a decisive turn with the beheading of secondary school teacher Samuel Paty. Once again, the Danish cartoons attacking Prophet Mohammad were at the core of the issue. Paty, in the name of free speech, took it upon himself to show the cartoons in his class.

Bringing in such material to a class of secondary students who are compelled to take the class from a pedagogical perspective makes little sense. Teenagers and reasoned discussion are not synonymous in any country. Moreover, there was no context to the presentations. The Muslim community was not consulted in any way, and given the years of abuse from such as Charlie Hebdo, showing the cartoons in a secondary school class could only be incendiary.  The 18 year old man accused of killing Mr. Paty, Abdoullakh Anzorov, is Chechen. Chechnya has been at war with Russia and with itself for longer than the killer has been alive. A tribal culture, Chechens have their own legal and moral codes which make as little allowance for French law as they did for Russian civilian codes or Chechen martial law. Thus, that the killer’s family was involved in the murder should come as no surprise. Abdoullakh Anzorov was shot and killed by police, but the legal issues involving his family and social media friends continue.[13]

Whatever the rights and wrongs of Mr. Paty’s decision to show the cartoons in his class, a school teacher murdered by beheading by a group of his own students shocked and appalled the nation. Moreover, the Paty murder comes within the context of a rising tide of intercommunal violence targeting Jews and Muslims alike.[14] In this, the case of Sarah Halimi became symbolic. Sarah Halimi was an elderly Jewish woman who was murdered by a deranged Salafist, Kobili Traoré, who was actually her neighbor.  Traoré, shouting suras from the Qu’ran, pushed her out her window and she fell to her death. Traoré was found to be legally insane and committed to a mental hospital. This caused widespread demonstrations against the French judicial system.[15]

The Halimi case is not recorded in terrorism statistics. It was purely a criminal matter. But together with the Paty killing, it was a turning point. French Jews now felt every bit as vulnerable and forgotten as do the Muslim residents of the cités. Both see the French state as unwilling or unable to protect them, provoking a crisis of legitimacy that the French state was forced to address. Electoral politics complicated the matter considerably.

Marine Le Pen’s Front National, a party she inherited from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen who founded it as an extreme right wing party in 1972, was riding the Islamophobic wave of French politics in the wake of the 2015 terrorist attacks, The Paty and Halima killings opened new vistas of electoral success. This follows the pattern of extreme right groups throughout Europe who began as fringe neo-Nazi groups but, after a change of style, rhetoric and leadership, began to seriously challenge the established parties for power. The Front National, like other parties of its kind, deemphasized their anti-Semitic rants of the past, replacing them with dire warnings of the dangers of the “Islamicization” of European society. This allowed them to reach beyond the far right and find significant support among feminists, opponents of LGBT rights, and religious Christians to name a few. In 2020, polls place Le Pen’s support at 28%, which is 2% more than President Emmanuel Macron.[16]

The message was not lost on President Macron. With elections looming, President Macron proposed sweeping anti-separatism legislation. As a first step, the President demanded that Muslim organizations sign a Republican Values Charter, affirming their adherence to French secular principles.[17] That Muslim organizations were singled out by the Interior Ministry as opposed to, say, Ultra-Orthodox Jews who reject secularism as strongly as any Muslim group, made the intent of the legislation clear. As part of this drive, Muslim civic organizations that had long been state funded were struck from the government rolls.

The bill is complex and pervasive, but its primary scope includes:

  • Ban on homeschooling[18]
  • Control of online hate speech;
  • Oversight of religious practices including strict limits on foreign funding of religious groups;
  • Oversight of associations and a demand for strict adherence to principles of gender equality;
  • Dignity issues (largely aimed at the status of Muslim girls); and
  • Secularism[19]

The legislation represents, under the banner of counter-terrorism and the integration of French society, the most sweeping attempt to westernize immigrant Islam ever attempted. The bill was passed by Parliament on 16 September 2021 and at this writing is before the Senate.


France represents a worst case scenario of the impact of poverty and exclusion, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and, most of all, pervasive fear of the ‘other’ to be currently found in Europe. Where the anti-hijab legislation of the last decade had a limited scope and effect, the anti-separatism legislation seeks nothing less than a total restructuring of the lives of French Muslims. In a classic Americanism however, the devil is in the details. Once in the hands of the French courts, other religious groups will fall under the strictures of the law and will like it no more than the French Muslim community.

In perhaps the greatest irony, the legislation comes at a time of sharply falling terrorism in France. Terrorist violence in France reached its height in the attacks of 2015 and has fallen steadily ever since. The fall of Raqqa and the decline of Al Qaeda, pressure on Qatar to break its relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, and pressure on Turkey to cease its support of terrorist groups in France have all contributed to this decline.[20] Moreover, right wing terrorism has declined as well, focusing instead on electoral politics and confident that the French government is moving increasingly in their desired direction.

Yet terrorism is more than a set of statistics. It is a perception in the minds of the targets, and to broad swaths of the French public terrorism is inherent in Islam and Islam is thus a threat to France, and to French values. The legislation that results from this perception, applied to the Islamic community alone, will likely bring more communal and terrorist violence in the near term.



[1] For tragicomic accounts of adolescent French girls suddenly donning the hijab and either threatening their parents with death or seeking a quick marriage to a Daesh fighter, see Marc Weitzmann, “France’s Great Debate Over the Sources and Meaning of Muslim Terror,” Tablet, May 25, 2021,

[2] European Union terrorism situation and trend report 2020,  (Europol, 2021),

[3] Jeroen Temperman and András Koltay, Blasphemy and freedom of expression: comparative, theoretical and historical reflections after the Charlie Hebdo massacre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018). Michael Kelly, “France’s laïcité: why the rest of the world struggles to understand it,” The Conversation, November 20, 2020,

[4] For a good timeline of events, see Michael Ray, “Paris attacks of 2015,”, On the attacks and their aftermath, Sylvain Brouard, Pavlos Vasilopoulos, and Martial Foucault, “How terrorism affects political attitudes: France in the aftermath of the 2015–2016 attacks,” West European Politics 41, no. 5 (2018): 1073-99.

[5] Edward Iacobucci and Stephen J. Toope, After the Paris attacks : responses in Canada, Europe, and around the globe (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015).

[6] Lalla Amina Drhimeur, “Moroccan Diaspora politics since the 1960s,”  (2020), Nina Sahraoui, “Acquiring ‘voice’through ‘exit’: how Moroccan emigrants became a driving force of political and socio-economic change,” The Journal of North African Studies 20, no. 4 (2015): 522-39.

[7] On all this and more, Gilles Kepel and Pascale Ghazaleh, The war for Muslim minds: Islam and the West (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2004). Gilles Kepel, Terror in France: The rise of jihad in the west (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).

[8] Aude Mazoue, “Bill equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism sparks debate in France,” France24, February 20, 2019,

[9] Joan W Scott, “Symptomatic politics: The banning of Islamic head scarves in French public schools,” French Politics, Culture & Society 23, no. 3 (2005): 106.

[10] Kirsten Wesselhoeft, “Mixité, gender difference, and the politics of Islam in France after the headscarf ban,” in The Routledge Handbook of Islam and Gender (New York: Routledge, 2020), 146-59. Jason Silverstein, “France will still ban Islamic face coverings even after making masks mandatory,” CBS News, May 12, 2020,


[12] Global Terrorism Index 2020: Measuring the impact of terrorism, Institute for Economics and Peace (2021),

[13] “French police detain seven over beheading of teacher Samuel Paty,” France 24, January 13, 2021,

[14] Engy Abdelkader, “A Comparative Analysis of European Islamophobia: France, UK, Germany, Netherlands and Sweden,” UCLA J. Islamic & Near EL 16 (2017), Marc Weitzmann, Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France (and What It Means for Us) (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019).

[15] Marc Weitzmann, “Sarah Halimi Was Beaten to Death in Paris By a Muslim Attacker Reciting Verses From the Quran. The Press Covered it Up,” Tablet Magazine, May 26, 2017, “Protests after French court rules Jewish woman’s ‘delirious’ killer not fit for trial,” France 24, May 25, 2021,

[16] Alice Tidey, “A year before the vote, who is bidding to be France’s next president?,” Euronews, April 14, 2021,

[17] “France’s Macron asks Muslim leaders to back ‘republican values’ charter,” BBC News, November 19, 2020,

[18] This is perhaps the most important aspect of the bill for the future of French society. It is aimed at what is clearly a dual system of education, each designed to inculcate very different cultural values, it seeks to bring Muslim children under the sway of secular French values. Both Jews and Christians in France also have their own religious schools. How these would be effected is yet to be seen. On the Muslim schools, see Carine Bourget, Islamic schools in France: Minority integration and separatism in Western society (London: Springer, 2019).

[19] Alice Tidey, “Here’s all you need to know about France’s controversial separatism law,” Euronews, February 16, 2021,

[20] Omran Salman, “Will Qatar’s Relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood Change after Gulf Reconciliation?,” Washington Institute, February 3, 2021, “What Does the End of the Qatar Blockade Mean for the Muslim Brotherhood?,” Stratfor, January 27, 2021, Yusuf Özcan, “Turkey, France to remain friends, allies: Turkish official,” AA, June 7, 2021,

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