Dozens of prominent French Muslims and Prime Minister Manuel Valls have called for a national drive to promote mainstream Islam in France and to combat the radicalization of young Muslims.
Forty-one prominent Muslims, along with Mr Valls, issued separate appeals in the Journal du Dimanche (JDD) newspaper. The move comes nearly a week after the murder of a priest by Islamist extremists, which shocked the country. Prominent Muslims and Mr Valls have stated that a French Muslim foundation, which was set up in 2005, must be relaunched. In his appeal in JDD, Mr Valls, a Socialist, stated that the French state must avoid “any paternalism” towards Islam, but “there is an urgent need to help Islam in France to rid itself of those who are undermining it from the inside,” adding, “to do that, we have a duty to build a real pact with Islam in France, and give the foundation a central role.” While he did not provide details of what the foundation’s role would be, or how it would interact with mosques, he warned that “if Islam doesn’t help the Republic to fight those who challenge public freedoms, it will get harder for the Republic to guarantee this freedom of worship.” Separately, 41 prominent French Muslims issued a joint statement in JDD, stating, “we must speak up now because Islam has become a public issue and the current situation is intolerable.” Amongst the signatories were former ministerial advisers, entrepreneurs, lawyers, scientists and academics. They deplored the spate of attacks by jihadists in France, including those in Paris last year and most recently the attack in Nice and the murder of an elderly priest in a church in a suburb of Rouen. They further stated, “we Muslims were silent before because we understood that in France religion is a private matter,” a reference to the French state’s strict secular policy.” They added that “a Foundation for Islam in France was set up more than 10 years ago and now it is time to reactivate it…It has never worked properly…but now it should be empowered to collect donations.” They also called for “a cultural battle against radical Islamism among the youth,” stating that it should include transparent funding of mosques, proper training and salaries for imams and theological work. In 2004, the French government stated that the country’s imams must all learn French and widen their education, arguing that a majority of them were from outside France.
Mr Valls’s stance however has drawn some criticism. Two politicians in the right-wing opposition party The Republicans – Eric Ciotti and Christian Estrosi, have accused Mr Valls of hypocrisy for failing to prevent the opening of a Saudi-funded mosque in Nice. There is widespread concern in Europe about the influence of Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservative Wahhabi version of Islam.
In recent weeks, the French government has been severely criticized by many over its handling of the terrorist threat. On 18 July, Mr Valls was booed during a commemoration ceremony in Nice for the 84 people who were killed by a lorry, which ploughed into a holiday crowd on the city’s beachfront promenade. The Tunisian driver is believed to have been inspired by the so-called Islamic State (IS) group. In the wake of last week’s murder of a priest in a church, two men have been arrested. Farid K, 30, a cousin of attacker Abdel Malik Petitjean, was arrested on suspicion of “terrorist association,” while the other man, Jean-Philippe Steven J, 20, was placed under formal investigation for allegedly attempting to travel to Syria in June with Petitjean. Petitjean and accomplice Adel Kermiche, both 19, were shot dead by police.
In a nine-minute video posted on YouTube on Sunday, the so-called Islamic State (IS) group has called on its members to carry out jihad in Russia.
The video, which has subtitles, depicted footage of armed men attacking armoured vehicles and tens and collecting arms in the desert. One of the subtitles read, “breaking into a barrack of the Rejectionist military on the international road south Akashat.” In the last minutes of the video, a masked men driving a car in the desert yells “Listen Putin, we will come to Russia and we will kill you at your homes…Oh Brothers, carry out jihad and kill and fight them.”
While it was not immediately possible to independently verify the video, the link to the footage was published on a Telegram messaging account used by the militant group. Furthermore, while it was not immediately clear why Russia would be a target, the country, along with the United States, are talking about boosting military and intelligence cooperation against both IS and al-Qaeda in Syria. IS has called on its supporters to take action with any available weapons targeting countries it has been fighting.
Over the past several weeks, there has been a string of deadly attacks that have been claimed by IS. Last week, assailants loyal to IS forced an elderly Catholic priest in France to his knees before slitting his throat. Since the mass killing in Nice, southern France on 14 July, there have been four incidents that have occurred in Germany, including the most recent suicide bombing that occurred at a concern in Ansbach.
Police operations carried out in Mons and Liege last week resulted in two brothers being arrested on suspicion of carrying an attack on the country.
One of the men arrested, named only as Nouredine H, 33, has ben charged over an alleged plot to attack Belgium. He is accused of attempting to commit a “terrorist murder” and participation in the activities of a terrorist organization and was arrested along with his brother Hamza H. Hamza H. has since been released from police custody without charge. The raids were carried out by federal police in the cities of Mons and Liege, with officials disclosing that no weapons or explosives were found during the operations. In a statement, the federal prosecution office disclosed that “based on provisional results from the investigation, it appears that there were plans to carry out an attack somewhere in Belgium.” The French version of the statement referred to “planning attacks” in the plural.
Belgium is currently on security alert level three, of four, effectively meaning that the threat is considered serious, possible and probable. In March, thirty-two people were killed after attacks were carried out on Brussels Airport and a metro station in the city. Last month, Belgian police disclosed that they had received warning that a group of so-called Islamic State (IS) fighters had recently left Syria and were heading to Europe to plan attacks in Belgium and neighbouring France.
Last year, a record number of terrorist attacks were planned, foiled or carried out within European Union (EU) countries, with the United Kingdom reporting the highest number of attacks.
EU law enforcement agency Europol has reported that in 2015, there were 211 attack, the highest since records began in 2006. The failed, foiled and completed terrorist attacks occurred in six EU member states: Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, Spain and the UK. Of these countries, the UK had the highest number of attacks, 103 in total, in which most are believed to have been in Northern Ireland.
France had the highest number of planned, foiled or completed attacks – 72 – followed by Spain with 25. A spokeswoman for Europol has disclosed that it did not have a breakdown of the number of terror attacks that had actually been carried out in the EU.
According to the agency’s EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, there were 1,000 arrests for terrorist-related offences last year, in which 424 occurred in France. Europol has further reported that more than half of arrests that occurred in the EU – 687 – were “for jihadist terrorism,” adding that of these arrests, 94% were later found guilty in court. In addition to the jihadist terrorist arrests, there were 67 arrests for left-wing terror; 11 for right-wing terror; and 168 separatist. A further 144 arrests were unspecified. Europol has reported that 151 people died and that more than 360 were injured in terrorist incidents that occurred last year.
In its report, Europol states that “as in previous years, the attacks specifically classified as separatist terrorism accounted for the largest proportion, followed by jihadist attacks.” Europol also noted that the report outlines two “worrying developments,” stating that “the overall threat is reinforced by the substantial numbers of returned foreign terrorist fighters that many member states now have on their soil, and the significant rise in nationalist (xenophobic), racist and anti-Semitic sentiments across the EU, each resulting in acts of right-wing extremism.” While Europol has indicated that there was “no concrete evidence to date that terrorist travellers systematically use the flow of refugees to enter Europe unnoticed,” it noted that two of the men who carried out the 13 November terror attacks in Paris France, which killed 130 people, had entered the EU through Greece as part of the influx of refugees from Syria.
The report also highlighted that nuclear power plants and nuclear weapon facilities in the EU “remain potential targets for terrorists,” as does “the deliberate contamination of water supplies,” adding “explosive remnants of war and illicit trafficking in explosives from former conflict areas present a significant threat to the EU.” The report goes on to state that “chemical facilities or companies, especially these perceived as having a low profile until recently, can become a vulnerable target,” adding, “terrorists prefer the use of conventional firearms and explosives because of their availability, simplicity and effectiveness. Europol also described cyber terrorism as “high potential but currently low probability.”
France’s National Assembly voted this month in order to extend the state of emergency for six months. The move follows the attack in Nice in which 84 people were killed and scores injured when a lorry was driven into crowds. It also comes after President Francois Hollande stated earlier this month, and prior to the attack in Nice, that he did not intend to extend the state of emergency beyond 26 July.
The latest extension effectively brings the state of emergency until the end of January 2017. It is the fourth extension that France’s parliament has proposed and the move must be approved by the Senate. The last extension was to cover the Euro 2016 football tournament and the end of the Tour de France cycling race.
As France continues to grapple with the growing threat from jihadist militants, Prime Minister Manuel Valls has warned that France must expect more deadly attacks despite precautions taken by his government. Speaking at the debate in the National Assembly, Valls stated that France would have to learn to live with the threat. He went on to say that “even if these words are hard to say, its my duty to do so…There will be other attacks and there will be other innocent people killed. We must not become accustomed, we must never become accustomed, to the horror, but we must learn to live with this menace.”
The state of emergency was initially brought in after terror attacks occurred in Paris in November 2015, in which 130 people were killed. That attack was claimed by the so-called Islamic State (IS) group. The emergency measures give the police additional powers to carry out searches and to place people under house arrest.
Questions however have emerged over what impact the emergency measures have had on the country. A recent commission of inquiry found that the state of emergency was only having a “limited impact” on improving security. It further questioned the deployment of between 6,000 and 7,000 soldiers to protect schools, synagogues, department stores and other sensitive sites.