Why France? Understanding terrorism’s many (and complicated) causes

The terrible attack in Nice on July 14—Bastille Day—saddened us all. For a country that has done so much historically to promote democracy and human rights at home and abroad, France is paying a terrible and unfair price, even more than most countries. My colleagues Will McCants and Chris Meserole have carefully documented the toll that France, and certain other Francophone countries like Belgium, have suffered in recent years from global terrorism. It is heart wrenching.

From what we know so far, the attack was carried out by a deeply distraught, potentially deranged, and in any case extremely brutal local man from Nice of Tunisian descent and French nationality. Marital problems, the recent loss of his job, and a general sense of personal unhappiness seem to have contributed to the state of mind that led him to commit this heinous atrocity. Perhaps we will soon learn that ISIS, directly or indirectly, inspired the attack in one way or another as well. My colleague Dan Byman has already tapped into his deep expertise about terrorism to remind us that ISIS had in fact encouraged ramming attacks with vehicles before, even if the actual manifestation of such tactics in this case was mostly new. 

This attack will again raise the question: Why France? On this point, I do have a somewhat different take than some of my colleagues. The argument that France has partly brought these tragedies upon itself—perhaps because of its policies of secularism and in particular its limitations on when and where women can wear the veil in France—strikes me as unpersuasive. Its logical policy implications are also potentially disturbing, because if interpreted wrongly, it could lead to a debate on whether France should modify such policies so as to make itself less vulnerable to terrorism. That outcome, even if unintended, could dance very close to the line of encouraging appeasement of heinous acts of violence with policy changes that run counter to much of what French culture and society would otherwise favor. So I feel the need to push back.

Here are some of the arguments, as I see them, against blaming French culture or policy for this recent string of horrible attacks including the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the November 2015 mass shootings in Paris, and the Nice tragedy (as well as recent attacks in Belgium):

  • Starting with the simplest point, we still do not know much about the perpetrator of the Nice killings. From what we do surmise so far, personal problems appear to be largely at the root of the violence—different from, but not entirely unlike, the case with the Orlando shooter, Omar Mateen.
  • We need to be careful about drawing implications from a small number of major attacks. Since 2000, there have also been major attacks in the Western world by extremist jihadis or takfiris in New York, Washington, Spain, London, San Bernardino, Orlando, and Russia. None of these are Francophone. Even Belgium is itself a mixed country, linguistically and culturally.
  • Partly for reasons of geography, as well as history, France does face a larger problem than some other European countries of individuals leaving its country to go to Syria or Iraq to fight for ISIS, and then returning. But it is hardly unique in the scale of this problem.
  • Continental Europe has a specific additional problem that is not as widely shared in the United Kingdom or the United States: Its criminal networks largely overlap with its extremist and/or terrorist networks. This point may be irrelevant to the Nice attack, but more widely, extremists in France or Belgium can make use of illicit channels for moving people, money, and weapons that are less available to would-be jihadis in places like the U.K. (where the criminal networks have more of a Caribbean and sub-Saharan African character, meaning they overlap less with extremist networks).
  • Of course, the greatest numbers of terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists occur in the broader Muslim world, with Muslims as the primary victims—from Iraq and Syria to Libya and Yemen and Somalia to South Asia. French domestic policies have no bearing on these, of course.

There is no doubt that good work by counterterrorism and intelligence forces is crucial to preventing future attacks. France has done well in this regard—though it surely can do better, and it is surely trying to get better. There is also no doubt that promoting social cohesion in a broad sense is a worthy goal. But I would hesitate, personally, to attribute any apparent trend line in major attacks in the West to a particular policy of a country like France—especially when the latter is in fact doing much to seek to build bridges, as a matter of national policy, with Muslims at home and abroad. 

There is much more to do in promoting social cohesion, to be sure, even here in America (though our own problems probably center more on race than on religion at the moment). But the Nice attacker almost assuredly didn’t attack because his estranged wife couldn’t wear a veil in the manner and/or places she wanted. At a moment like this in particular, I disagree with insinuations to the contrary.