It was a harrowing weekend for us international affairs students here in Europe. The BREXIT (Britain’s decision to exit the EU) decision was released Friday morning (a.k.a. I was addicted to my laptop the entire weekend as I read the apocalyptic implications that most websites predicted, Tweets from devastated British people, and various statistics). As I stood inside a meeting room at the Committee of Regions in Brussels that day, realizing how many chairs would be left empty soon, I felt incredibly humbled by the gravity of the situation. One of the reactions to BREXIT that really drove home the impact of the vote for me was of Eurasia Group founder Ian Bremmer, who said that BREXIT is the biggest international political risk since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Finding out that 75% of young people like me had voted BREMAIN didn’t help the frustration that I felt. Needless to say, I was excited to take the Thalys train to Paris on Sunday to get a break from the stressful environment in Brussels.
Our first site visit in Paris was to IFRI, whose French acronym translates to the French Institute of International Relations. IFRI is a leading nonpartisan think tank that often advises the French government. Among the panel of speakers that visited us, the first to speak was a research fellow at IFRI’s security studies center. He started off by giving us a brief history of French dealings with terrorism: First came the Hesbollah attacks in 1985/1986, then the civil war in Algeria that spilled over in the 90s, then the relative calm in the ten years post-9/11, then the anti-Semitic Toulouse and Montauban shootings in 2012, and then the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the attacks on Jewish supermarkets a couple years ago, and finally, the most recent (and most deadly): the November 13, 2015 Paris attack that killed a staggering 130 people. I was concerned to learn that the Paris attacks did not come as a complete surprise: hundreds of French citizens had been traveling to Syria and Iraq to become radicalized for years, with a huge uptake in recent years. Many of these “travelers” are lower-class teenagers previously involved in petty crime, which is a phenomenon that has been well-documented by the media. However, the statistic that has caught IFRI by surprise is that around 30% of these radicalized people come from middle-class backgrounds, where they “get mostly radicalized online,” said the speaker. I asked the speaker about his thoughts on the Schengen Area, which Johnny Jones previously mentioned made it easier for terrorists to move freely between EU countries. He said that although the Schengen Area isn’t at fault here, the Belgians should have done much more to prevent the terrorists from entering Paris. He also mentioned that there are many problems with Europol and insufficient coordination with intelligence sharing among member countries.
Next, another speaker talked to us about the other side of the battle: the French government’s response to the the terrorist attacks. Since January 2015, after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, French authorities have improved upon military operations and homeland security, increased social education, and implemented judicial process reform throughout France. He talked about how the French army has been involved with homeland security for centuries—mass protests and riots were handled by the military because the police were not large enough a force. Unfortunately, this led to the wide use of military force for repression, so after WW1, the French government decided to create a new Parliamentary Police Core. However, after the rise of the Cold War, the army became re-involved in homeland security. This involvement increased tenfold after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, when the president mobilized about 10,000 troops as part of a homeland security force. Unfortunately, the size of this force combined with a drop in training capabilities proves a real challenge. Moreover, there has been a growing morale drop in the army because its homeland security duties are not as exciting—patrolling the streets without having the power to arrest anyone isn’t the same as a battlefield. On the other side, there’s been growing militarization of police forces, so the inversion of roles of the police and military forces is interesting.
I wondered, is this very expensive ubiquitous military presence really needed for the safety of French citizens, or is it just being used to reassure them? France hasn’t even met its 2% GDP quota for NATO spending, so why should it divert this money for troops that seem like nothing more than intimidating “window dressing”? The speaker took a defensive stance on this position: “Their presence makes it much more complicated for a terrorist to carry out an attack efficiently. The question is, how much is our security spending affecting other areas—how can we be cost-efficient?”
The speaker then moved on to the next issue: lack of cooperation in intelligence-sharing among governments. Although the cooperation level between major powers like the France, UK, and the US, is “good”, most intelligence-sharing is done bilaterally, not multilaterally. This needs to change, but member countries have to build trust: “You need trust to share intelligence, and there is a lack of trust among EU states, especially with the Baltic states.” He also mentioned how the Internet Jihad presence makes fighting terrorism infinitely harder. There have been three stages of terrorist presence on the Internet: 1. Top-down public websites in the 90s 2. Jihadist forums where passwords were required in the mid-2000s 3. Social media jihadists (which skyrocketed starting 2012): allowed terrorists to reach the vast public The first two stages were much easier to deal with than the third stage, where governments are now constantly clashing with companies like Google, Twitter, Facebook, and Apple to gain access to social media accounts (which we heard a lot about previously at Google Europe and on the news with the Apple-FBI issue). Looking towards the future, it’s safe to say that the French government’s most pressing goals in this area are having a strategic vision for French homeland security, rethinking the army’s role in sharing resources with the police, and increasing cooperation between governments.
The next part of our panel discussion was of French involvement in Africa. To me, this was the most surprising part of our visit to IFRI. It showed me that despite France’s failure “on paper” to meet the 2% GDP spending requirement on NATO, it is actually a huge leader (where the U.S. is not) in leading anti-terrorist operations in Africa. I assumed that French media coverage, like in the U.S., would be heavily biased towards terrorism in the Middle East. However, according to the IFRI panel, terrorism coverage in Africa and the Middle East is more balanced due to France’s operations there. One of these operations is named Operation Barkhane, which started in 2014 and represents a new approach for French military operations in Africa, with troops in five countries including Mauritania, Mali, and Burkina Faso. Its main tenet is partnering with local militaries and multinational institutions (like the UN) in order to combat terrorism and reduce freedom of movement in those five countries. However, there are many challenges in working with African armies in combating terrorism, including limited military capacity, human rights violations, corruption problems, and disastrous human resources management within those armies. This really demonstrated the danger when it comes to only focusing on increasing militaries when fighting terrorism—a regional, long-term, multifaceted strategy needs to be developed instead. “You need to understand the African way of doing things—you can’t just imply that the 1st world countries ‘know best’,” the Africa expert said.
Because media coverage in the U.S. tends to be so Eurocentric and Middle-East-centric, it was fascinating to learn how much of an investment France has in Africa. I realized how much I had been in the dark when it came to terrorist groups like Boko Haram and AQIM. It was also interesting to make comparisons between U.S. involvement in Iraq and France involvement in Operation Barkhane—while the U.S. made the mistake of pulling out of Iraq too quickly, France seems to have taken note of that mistake and doesn’t look like it will be leaving Africa anytime soon. Then again, it is very scary to think of Boko Haram growing into the quasi-state that ISIS has become.
All in all, French military operations and anti-terrorism efforts seem to be much stronger than I previously thought. Although when I visited NATO in Brussels I got the impression that France was not pulling its weight, after being on the other side of the coin I learned that quality is much better than quantity when it comes to defense. In that, France is well-prepared strategically despite its strained forces. I suspect that France, which has already surpassed the UK economically in days since BREXIT, will take greater leadership in the European defense space now that the U.K. has left the E.U.
(Side note: one of the few positive and uniting things about being in Europe has been football. After our long days we went to sit at a café and watch the Euro 2016. Your economic policies and voting histories didn’t matter—only the team you were rooting for. I had several conversations with people all over the world in that café just because they were also rooting for Belgium! If only fighting over international affairs was as simple as fighting over a football!)