Gilles Kepel, a specialist on ‘Islam and the Arab world’, wrote last year in Terreur dans l’Hexagone – a study of French jihadism – that the Charlie Hebdo killings were ‘a sort of cultural 9/11’. The jihadism that we’re now confronted with, he argued, is a third wave phenomenon, superseding the mujahidin in Afghanistan (the first) and emerging in the long twilight of al-Qaida (the second). The latest wave is specifically targeted at Europe, with its significant Muslim population (about 20 million in EU countries): the approach is ‘horizontal’, favouring networks rather than cells; disruption, fear and division are the tactics; the radical awakening of European Muslims, many already disaffected and marginal, is the immediate objective. The murders at Charlie Hebdo’s offices and the kosher store in Paris brought the third wave ‘to a paroxysm’, in Kepel’s view, just as 9/11 brought the second ‘to its pinnacle’. At the time of writing, no one has laid claim to the atrocity in Nice: more than eighty dead, fifty hospitalised (‘between life and death’, in President Hollande’s words, earlier today).
Third wave or no wave, the journalists in France who reported on the murders last year, in January and then November, knew that before long they’d be treading again the same dark paths, strewn with flowers and lapidary messages in felt tip, as another period of mourning was written into the national calendar. France knew it too. And here we are, repeating ourselves: first the indignation and pity, then the low incantation, more like a self-enchantment than a prayer.
Hollande, who saw his national football team go the final in Euro 2016 and argued that things were on the mend in France, is now promising to increase air strikes in Iraq and Syria. Impossible, then, to fault his prime minister, Manuel Valls, when he says that the French must learn to live with events of this kind. Bombing the remains of Arab states does not drive terrorism beyond France’s borders; on the contrary. Why it doesn’t make politicians unelectable is a mystery: even Marine Le Pen has spoken half-heartedly in favour of France’s air strikes in Syria. But what use are they against an armed man in a truck on the Promenade des Anglais?
Seething beneath the new horror are deep doubts about France’s intelligence services. Did they let their guard down after the tense security challenge of the football? Hollande had announced an end to the long state of emergency, which he planned to lift after the Tour de France: now it’s going to be in place for a further three months.
A parliamentary commission recently published the results of a five-month inquiry into the security agencies, prompted by the killings in 2015. Today the chair of the commission, George Fenech, a magistrate and centre-right MP, is railing against the government for ignoring the questions his report has raised about their ability to forestall terrorist attacks. He’s told the media that neither Hollande nor Valls summoned him to discuss the findings and that when Bernard Cazeneuve, the interior minister, deigned to see him, it was to say that none of the commission’s proposals for carving a broad path through the labyrinth of different intelligence agencies would go into effect. Cazeneuve described the report to Fenech as a ‘plum pudding’.
Since 2012, many of the terrorists who have taken part in attacks were known to one or another arm of the French security apparatus, but no fluent communication exists between the various departments: a failing in a country whose enemies will survive bombardment and territorial conquest. As for its friends, solidarity and reason are the best we can offer.