Published at The Telegraph
In Paris last night a gunman parked his car, stepped out, and opened fire on a police van outside a Marks & Spencer’s on the Champs Élysées. One policeman was murdered; two were wounded. A female tourist was also injured. The attacker was killed by police as he tried to flee and continue his rampage. Within two hours, the Islamic State (ISIL) had claimed the attack via its Amaq News Agency, and, rather unusually, had named the killer: “Abu Yusuf al-Baljiki”.
It has been widely reported that “Abu Yusuf the Belgian” is really Karim Cheurfi the Frenchman, a 39-year-old imprisoned for fifteen years after being convicted for three counts of attempted murder in 2001. Notably, two of his intended victims were police officers. French media has reported that Cheurfi was briefly arrested on 23 February after expressing an intent to kill law-enforcement officials, but released due to lack of evidence; the Interior Ministry refused to comment.
Though the French prosecutor has said the perpetrator’s identity is “known and verified,” Cheurif was not actually named. Additionally, the Belgian Interior Minister said that Cheurfi was “certainly not the guy who committed the crime yesterday”. Cheurfi was also not on France’s Fiche-S, the 10,000-person database retained by France’s premier domestic intelligence agency, the General Directorate for Internal Security (DGSI). Cheurfi’s name surfaced after police raided his home in Chelles on the Eastern edge of Paris, and three of his family members were arrested.
Questions will be raised about connections to the arrest in Marseilles on Sunday of two men, Mahiedine Merabet and Clement Baur, who were planning an imminent attack and had links with jihadist networks in Belgium. That said, early reports of a direct Belgian link have, so far, been discredited. A 35-year-old Belgian, regarded as dangerous in his own right but not believed to be connected to this attack, has handed himself in to authorities in Antwerp.
The wording of the Amaq statement was unique, a significant departure from the template developed over the last year or so. The Islamic State’s claim of responsibility was also unusually quick, suggesting it was aware of the attack before it occurred. ISIL does not, contrary to popular myth, claim every violent incident around the world. They needn’t do so: while there are a few “lone wolves” who are adopted by ISIL after acting in its name, in most cases it has pre-existing connections to the terrorists.
I recently conducted a study of ISIL’s foreign attacks between 2002 and 2016 and found that nearly three-quarters of the 152 attacks or thwarted attacks surveyed in that time period were directly orchestrated by the group, either wholly controlled or guided through online means by operatives of ISIL’s foreign intelligence service, the Amn al-Kharji. Many more were networked. Only 15 per cent of the attacks were genuine “lone wolf” attacks.
The study found that France was the single most victimised country by ISIL’s campaign, with twenty incidents since 2012. Among the reasons was that a French-speaking jihadist, Rachid Kassim, rose to prominence within Amn al-Kharji in this period, and linguistic capability has a strong correlation with ISIL’s focus. Correspondingly, the demise of the British ISIL guide Junaid Hussain significantly reduced the number of attacks and attempted attacks in English-speaking countries.
France has a long history as a haven for jihadism dating back to the early 1990s.
In December 1991, the military junta that has misruled Algeria since independence cancelled an election it had been pressured into holding when it became evident after the first round that the Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front, known by its French initials as the FIS, was going to win. The crackdown that followed as the Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS) secured control of the state triggered an armed revolt, and the DRS unleashed horrific violence on the population, weakening moderate elements of the insurgency, while infiltrating, manipulating, and bolstering extremists who drove the opposition’s cause into mass-murder and defeat.
The Armed Islamic Group (GIA), affiliated with al-Qaeda until Osama bin Ladin decided to break ties because of the GIA’s murderous behaviour, subsumed the Algerian insurrection and used France as a rear-base for fundraising and recruiting. These extremist networks would outlast the Algerian war, and the waves of refugees from that savage conflict, settling in unintegrated and impoverished communities around Paris, provided perfect recruitment ground for the zealot preachers.
The Bosnian war that would make al-Qaeda a truly global cause later that decade drew in some of the jihadists who escaped the Algerian war, helping them network and ideologically cohere. This would flow back into France, becoming a major public issue, notably including the spree of terror-cum-criminality of the Roubaix gang in 1996.
By the time jihadists were able to use Afghanistan and Iraq as causes to mobilize in the 2000s, and certainly by Syria in 2011, France already had an entrenched jihadist problem. A perfect case in point is Boubaker al-Hakim, a senior ISIL military commander and director of foreign operations, who may or may not have been killed in Raqqa. He was radicalized by a jihadi cleric in the late 1990s, oversaw recruitment of French jihadists to ISIL between 2002 and his 2004 arrest, and then went on to rejoin ISIL after he was released in 2013.
The timing of this attack, whether directed by ISIL “centre” or not, hardly appears coincidental. This Sunday the French population begins an electoral process that might determine the survival of the European Union, this attack can only help the far-Right, anti-EU Marine Le Pen. There are hints in that jihadists see the dissolution of the EU as in their interests. More immediately, the election of Le Pen—whose candidacy has traded liberally on anti-Muslim sentiment, using the very real problems within France’s Muslim community as a foil—would help erase the “grey zone,” the ideological space of coexistence between being Muslim and European. ISIL thrives on forcing people to choose a camp; in Le Pen it could hardly have a more polarising figure.