Interpreting the Paris attack

2015 has hardly been the best year for France.

No sooner had the Twelve Days of Christmas ended when the Kouachi brothers gunned down Charlie Hebdo editors and a policeman outside their offices before holding a printing plant owner hostage two days later. Amedy Coulibaly shot a policewoman dead as well as a man at a kosher supermarket in the same timeframe.

In February, the radical Moussa Coulibaly (no relation) attacked three military personnel in Nice who were guarding a Jewish community centre.

In April, Sid Ahmed Ghlam murdered fitness instructor Aurélie Châtelain. He had intended to steal her car and drive it to two Catholic parishes in Villejuif, just outside of Paris, where he planned to massacre churchgoers after Sunday morning Mass. But Ghlam ran into a spot of bother. He accidentally shot himself in the leg. He was bleeding profusely. He drove his own car for some distance, then ended up ringing the emergency services. Police arrived on the scene and arrested him.

In June, Yassin Salhi beheaded his employer Hervé Cornara in the town of Saint-Quentin-Fallavier near Lyon. Cornara managed a trucking company and had criticised Salhi, one of his drivers, for poor work practices a few weeks earlier. On June 26, Salhi tricked Cornara into his van. He struck Cornara unconscious and strangled him. Salhi drove to one of his usual assigned locations, the local Air Products factory where he was to collect gas cylinders. Just before reaching the factory, Salhi beheaded Cornara. He put Cornara’s head on a fence railing, placed a cloth printed with a Muslim prayer over it and attached two Islamist banners nearby. Salhi then tried to blow the factory up by ploughing into several gas cylinders. An explosion occurred and two people were injured. The factory was largely undamaged. Salhi shouted ‘Allahu akhbar’ when he was arrested. When questioned, he insisted that his attack had no religious significance.

In August, the Thalys train attack took place.

And now, the Paris attacks — the worst in the city since the Second World War.

France’s BFMTV photographed the communiqué in French from the Islamic State (see the 11:48 entry). IS entitled it ‘the blessed attack on Paris against the crossed people’ (les croisés).

Les croisés is difficult to translate. Traditionally, it means ‘crusader’, but it is also used in a general sense of ‘crossed’. By using ‘the crossed people’ I am making the choice to translate it as being closer to the old pejorative term used against Catholics: ‘crossback’.

The IS statement reads in part (translation mine):

Eight brothers carrying explosive belts and assault rifles took for their targets meticulously chosen places to advance to the heart of the French capital, the Stade de France during the match between two crossed countries France and Germany which the imbecile François Hollande was attending, the bataclan [sic] where hundreds of idolaters were gathered for a festival of perversity as well as other targets in the tenth, the eleventh and the eighteenth arrondissement, all of these simultaneously.

The communiqué rang true to an article that the French newsweekly Marianne recently published (‘Comment mieux combattre Daech’, 6-12 November 2015, pp. 74, 75). It discussed the rhetoric that IS use and how we can better understand it.

Radical Islam’s greatest enemy are those who practice polytheism. Christians, the ‘crossed’, are among that number theologically for most Muslims — radical or otherwise.

The article explained that radical Islamists go further. They consider the West’s secular idols as an example of polytheism:

the elites of Daech include in this ‘polytheism’ the cult of ‘idols of the tribe’ — celebrities, media, athletes — as well as ‘idols of the marketplace’, among which consumer consumption is the primary example, and, finally, those ‘idols of the theatre’ …

According to rhetorician Philippe-Joseph Salazar, such wording is effective with radical Islamists because it characterises today’s materialistic world occupied by les croisés.

Piecing Salazar’s explanation of IS’s interpretation of idolatry together with IS’s communiqué, we see that all targets were hit: the theatre, the stadium as well as the marketplace of restaurants and bars.
As IS said, this was to penetrate the heart of France’s capital.

The BBC interviewed a French journalist on Saturday afternoon who said that she was shocked that IS would attack places ‘ordinary Parisians’ would frequent. The Bataclan and the restaurants were, she said, hardly top tourist locations.

The irony is that they were in young, trendy neighbourhoods, populated by what the French call ‘bobos’ — bourgeois bohemians — just the type of people who vote for the Socialists and who have pushed for France to take in more refugees, because it’s a great opportunity for the nation. La chance pour la France, as they so often say.

It’s a great opportunity for wanton death and destruction, that’s for sure.

I am pleasantly surprised that the usual next phase in the media’s news cycle has not yet occurred: the explaining away the hatred a small segment of society has for the French people. There have not yet been the endless discussions and articles about the suburban poor, their lack of hope, their search for meaning and the appeal for more taxpayer money to be thrown at an intractable problem.

It should be noted that the men who carried out the earlier attacks this year have criminal records or come from dysfunctional households. All grew up in single-parent homes. Most of those involved in the November 13 attacks share the same profile.

Security experts told BFMTV that, in an attempt to turn their lives around, the radicalised always have a spiritual mentor, someone who takes them to religious and criminal extremes.

I do think we will win this war, but it will require much more intelligence gathering. Many of France’s ‘S’ — ‘security’ — file designations on radicalised individuals need careful review. Several of the perpetrators of attacks this year had ‘S’ files, some of which were not renewed. More need to be renewed than at present. Better passport control needs to be done as some of these men were travelling back and forth between France or Belgium and Syria with alarming regularity.

Fortunately, more intelligence officers are being recruited, although it will take time to train them.

In the meantime, one week on, my thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.

3 comments for “Interpreting the Paris attack

  1. November 20, 2015 at 9:26 pm

    Good to see you finally got through.

    • November 20, 2015 at 10:19 pm

      Thanks, James!

  2. November 22, 2015 at 7:13 am

    Excellent analysis!

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