Despite only being in the city for a few days, I feel that many of us have already developed some sort of routine to start our days in Paris – which could be to wake up, get dressed, and go to the bakery across the street for breakfast or to roll out of bed and run to the lobby just in time to make it to the metro.
We are all slowly adjusting to a new, much larger city and simultaneously bursting with excitement and wilting with exhaustion. These past few days have been very busy for us as a class and though we finished with our site visit earlier than usual today, I know that the urge to go out and explore the city infected all of us and that the majority of the group went out to see the wonders of Paris (the 90 degree weather not stopping us).
IFRI (the French Institute of International Relations) was kind enough to brief our class on several security issues of interest including Jihad in Syria and Iraq, Russian information warfare, hybrid warfare, and French defense policy in relation to these conflict areas. This think tank specializes in global security threats and provides information to the general public and to the French government about current events. The first speaker on our panel, Mark Heckner, described the theological, historical, and practical reasons behind the popularity of the current global jihad, which has caused the emigration and radicalization of over 5,000 westerners. He explained the problems posed specifically for France as 1,700 of these new recruits are French nationals who bring their extremist thoughts back to France and threaten citizens at home. The French government has attempted to curb this radicalization of French citizens by monitoring social media, shutting down certain sites, creating a hotline for those who come into contact with radical behavior, and preventing the travel of individuals suspected of belonging to or sympathizing with the jihadist movement. The inefficiency of these measures is startling – the government cannot ban Facebook, Twitter, or other social media sites, which are the main propaganda tool of jihadist groups and because of the Schengen Agreement, French nationals can go to another EU state and travel to Syria and Iraq very easily through Turkey. These concerns have lead to the reform of the French intelligence agency, but the limited amount of employees have prevented the creation of a proper monitoring system for suspected radicals.
The most surprising part of this part of the discussion was the suggestion that France, the US’s largest western ally currently working in the Middle East to destroy the influence of ISIS in Syria, should pull out of Syria and Iraq and focus its attention on Tunisia and the Sahel and Maghreb regions, as they pose more relevant threats to France and partially belonged to the former French colonial area. This poses many concerns for united action in Syria as France moves to act against the symptoms that pose the most immediate threat to their borders without attacking the source of the rapidly spreading extremism. This interactive presentation on Jihad’s effect on the west enlightened our class on the role that France plays in the international community and its cooperation with the US in anti-terrorism programs in the MENA region.
Our next speakers, focusing on information and hybrid warfare, detailed the effects of unconventional attacks and propaganda movements by Russia in Eastern Europe. These speakers focused on the inability of the EU and NATO to combat Russia’s information warfare in Ukraine, the Baltic states, and many member states of the EU as Russia spreads its own narrative across social media in the native languages of each target region. I found it interesting that Russia has specific programs to target youth populations born after the fall of the Soviet Union, hoping to recruit more people to their cause that have less historical resentment toward Russia in the East. I found this site interesting, which the members of IFRI mentioned as Ukraine’s main site to target Russian propaganda and anti-EU sentiment in the East.
The meeting at IFRI ended with an explanation of France’s current inability to pay for it’s outlined defense plan, explaining the resilience, boldness, and fragility of French defense policy as a result of the current Eurozone crisis. This really solidified the position of France as one of the only nations within the EU willing to contribute to defense spending, but without further military contracts to build airplanes and aircraft carriers, the defense plan will not be able to fund itself.
Though informative, the negativity of this meeting toward terrorism, the Ukrainian crisis, Russian hybrid warfare, and French defense spending drained many of us and having the rest of the day to absorb the information and reflect on everything that these experts had to say was a very good thing. A few of us decided to head off to the Louvre Museum and bask in history, culture, and art – enjoying the past after a stimulating discussion of the present.