Paris attacks: 'there has been complacency in France'

A leading security expert explains why Britain has been more secure—but perhaps not secure enough

November 15, 2015
Spectators invade the pitch of the Stade de France stadium after the international friendly soccer France against Germany, Friday, Nov. 13, 2015 in Saint Denis, outside Paris. © AP Photo/Michel Euler
Spectators invade the pitch of the Stade de France stadium after the international friendly soccer France against Germany, Friday, Nov. 13, 2015 in Saint Denis, outside Paris. © AP Photo/Michel Euler

“I will be pleasantly surprised if there is not a significant [terror] attack in Britain in the next 12 months,” Michael Clarke, the director of the leading defense and security think tank, RUSI, told Prospect in the wake of the deadly terror attacks in Paris which left 129 dead, and another 352 injured. He believes that terrorists might choose to strike outside of London, due to the capital becoming increasingly “securitised” over the past decade.

Today, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, chaired an emergency meeting of Cobra to discuss the UK government’s response to the attacks in Paris. The threat level in this country has yet to be raised from its current level of “severe” but when questioned on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, May said that the government would now review the security situation and “see if there any further lessons we need to learn.”

The government's reluctance to raise the threat level could stem from a belief that British security services are better equipped to track homegrown terrorists than their French counterparts. This year marked the 10th anniversary of the 7/7 London bombings, an event that heightened awareness in this country of that particular threat.

“The British government took counter terrorism more seriously than the French partly because of the IRA experience [in the 1980s], but also partly because there was a realisation after 9/11 that this was a millennial struggle... We haven't always been the leaders in the field but we have done more than most,” Clarke said.

“There has been complacency in France in the last few years," he said. Since 2001, there have been over “60 attempts at significant [terror] attacks” in Britain, of which only two—the 7/7 bombings and the Lee Rigby murder—have worked. The rest were foiled by a combination of what he describes as effective intelligence and luck, saying that at least four other plots only failed because the bombs were made incorrectly and failed to go off.

The attackers chose Paris partly because it’s seen as a “softer target” than London, where many new buildings have been designed specifically to withstand bomb attacks. There is also the added benefit of it being easier to move around in the Schengen area. A car found near the Bataclan with foreign licence plates reportedly contained a parking ticket issued in the Molenbeek area of Belgium—a haven for jihadis—where police have since made several arrests.

The UK’s strict gun laws also serve as a deterrent to terrorists seeking to wreak havoc on western Europe. The Paris attackers all used AK-47 assault rifles, which are hard to get hold of in this country. A counter terrorism expert with decades of experience, Clarke believes these weapons would have likely been sourced from Belgium or the Netherlands.

“During the Albanian crisis in 1997, 750,000 Kalashnikovs disappeared and many came onto the black market,” said Clarke who was involved in research that was tracking this cache of weapons. “Many went to Rotterdam and were then exported around the world. There is no shortage of Kalashnikovs in Europe but you will struggle to find one in Britain, partly because there is no market for them but also because if Muslim youths start asking about Kalashnikovs here people tend to notice and tell the police.”

But, the question of why the attackers chose Paris goes deeper than mere logistics. France has one of the largest Muslim populations in Europe—and arguably the most divided society. Although Muslims make up just 7.5 per cent of the country's population, inside France's prisons, 70 per cent of the inmates are estimated to be Muslims (this is an estimate because, by law, France cannot ask a person to state their religion, so official data is unavailable). In England and Wales, by comparison, Muslims account for 14 per cent of the prison population, according to Home Office statistics, and five per cent of the population nationwide.

“The French have this attitude of integrationism, said Clarke. “If you are French, get on with being French... That tends to create an unwillingness to recognise deeper problems of cultural identity… Whereas in Britain we have the concept of ‘multiculturalism’ which is integrationism by the back door. We say ‘be whatever you want and we will respect it.’ This is a more subtle form of integration at the pace people want to take it.”

How this weekend’s attacks might impact on British attitudes towards military intervention in Syria remains to be seen. Earlier this month, it looked as if David Cameron had decided to shelve plans to call a vote to approve air strikes against IS in the region, in recognition that he had failed to win over enough Labour MPs and that Russia’s military intervention had complicated the picture. “I rather suspect the government will think this will play in favour of another Syria vote… and that a lot of people will now say we need another Syria vote just to prove that we will not be frightened or deflected by the Paris attacks."

Clarke believes that the focus of Islamic State’s activities is shifting from the Middle East to western Europe, because the group are increasingly under pressure in Syria and Iraq. The loss of key territories such as the Kurdish border town of Kobani, which they put a big effort into capturing, and the northern Iraqi city of Sinjar has dented morale and made communication difficult between their forces. An offensive against Mosul, their Iraqi stronghold, is due to start in the next few months.

“IS are losing fairly heavily now. Their standard tactic is that when they are under pressure on the ground they lash out with terrorist attacks elsewhere. This weekend’s attacks are partly a show of defiance, to prove they are still a force to be reckoned with and to take some pressure off their central front in the Middle East.”

Despite the global outpouring of grief, the iconic buildings illuminated in Tricolores and the social media solidarity, the question remains as to why a coalition of 64 nations can’t defeat a group of 40,000 fanatical fighters who have barely any military training?

“The answer is that the coalition doesn't really want to get rid of them,” said Clarke. "The Saudis are very ambiguous about IS. In theory they say all the right things but IS play into a deep sense of unease in the Sunni communities in the Middle East—the Sunni peoples are so frightened of the Shia peoples that they feel that IS is kind of fighting the Shia for them. Those who really want rid of IS are the western Europeans and the Americans and we are not prepared to take them on in a military sense, for reasons we all understand. If this was 12 years ago, before the 2003 invasion of Iraq it would have seemed plausible to send two western divisions and IS would have been gone within three months. Now there is no appetite for that kind of action.”

How will it play out? As the states of Iraq and Syria continue to crumble, it’s clear that the ugly phenomenon of Islamic State will be with us for some time. “The whole of the Levant from Lebanon to the Gulf is melting down before our eyes,” said Clarke “We are looking at the Balkinsation of this region of the Middle East, which means there will eventually be different levels of statehood, some contested areas and some totally ungoverned spaces.”