Is­lamic State’s Euro­pean strat­egy

The war in Syria isn’t just a Mid­dle Eastern prob­lem. It’s also a threat to U.S. al­lies.

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - DOYLE MCMANUS Re­port­ing from Paris doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com Twit­ter: @doylem­c­manus

Six months af­ter the Jan. 7 at­tack on the satir­i­cal weekly Char­lie Hebdo, Paris re­mains a city on guard. Black-uni­formed mil­i­tary po­lice of the Repub­li­can Se­cu­rity Com­pa­nies pa­trol tourist sites with sub­ma­chine guns. Mu­se­ums, con­cert halls and even book­stores fun­nel visi­tors through se­cu­rity checks un­der signs read­ing Vigipi­rate, the na­tional state of alert that still hasn’t been lifted.

The French cap­i­tal feels dis­tinctly more se­cu­rity-con­scious than even post-Sept. 11 Washington. And for good rea­son: The Jan­uary at­tacks on Char­lie Hebdo, in which 12 peo­ple died, and on a kosher su­per­mar­ket, in which four hostages and a po­lice of­fi­cer died, were only part of a larger prob­lem; France faces a con­tin­u­ing threat of ter­ror­ism inspired — per­haps even di­rected — by Is­lamic State.

On Fri­day, a man sus­pected of ties with Is­lamic ex­trem­ists at­tacked a U.S.-owned gas fac­tory near Lyon, leav­ing be­hind a sev­ered head, a de­cap­i­tated body and an Is­lamic flag.

And back in April, in an in­ci­dent barely no­ticed out­side Europe, po­lice ar­rested a 24-year-old com- puter science stu­dent from Al­ge­ria af­ter he ac­ci­den­tally shot him­self in the leg and tele­phoned for an am­bu­lance. The sus­pect, Sid Ahmed Gh­lam, claimed that he had been at­tacked armed rob­bers, but when po­lice searched his car and his apart­ment, they found what they de­scribed as “an ar­se­nal” of au­to­matic ri­fles and hand­guns, plus a list of po­ten­tial tar­gets. They quickly ar­rested two other men they said were co-con­spir­a­tors.

The sus­pects’ plan, In­te­rior Min­is­ter Bernard Cazeneuve said, had been to gun down parish­ioners at one or more sub­ur­ban Catholic churches dur­ing Sun­day Mass.

One el­e­ment of the al­leged plot stand out: It was aimed at or­di­nary churches — soft tar­gets, not high­pro­file sites like such as gov­ern­ment build­ings and syn­a­gogues that get ex­tra at­ten­tion from the po­lice. France has thou­sands of Catholic churches; it would be im­pos­si­ble for author­i­ties to pro­tect them all.

“The idea was to pro­voke a re­ac­tion — re­pres­sion, civil strife — that would drive young French Mus­lims to join ISIS,” Jean-Pierre Filiu, a Mid­dle East scholar at Paris’ In­sti­tute of Po­lit­i­cal Stud­ies, told me, us­ing an acro­nym for Is­lamic State. “It was part of a re­cruit­ing strat­egy. And it could have been a dis­as­ter.”

Is­lamic State, in other words, isn’t merely urg­ing sup­port­ers to launch ran­dom, sym­bolic at­tacks; it’s pro­vok­ing chaos in Europe with the spe­cific goal of at­tract­ing young Mus­lims.

Filiu said Is­lamic State prizes Euro­pean re­cruits for an un­ex­pected rea­son — not only be­cause they can be trained for at­tacks in their home coun­tries but be­cause they can be used as ruth­less en­forcers of the group’s dra­co­nian rule in Syria, where they have no fam­ily ties that might lead to le­niency.

“ISIS has a long-term terror strat­egy in Europe, and it’s work­ing,” said Filiu, a for­mer French diplo­mat who still ad­vises gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials. “It’s a Euro­pean 9/11.

for­mer high-rank­ing French na­tional se­cu­rity of­fi­cial told me Filiu’s as­sess­ment, while dra­matic, isn’t an ex­ag­ger­a­tion.

“Europe’s gov­ern­ments are very wor­ried,” he said. “We ex­pect more at­tacks. The prob­lem of ISIS is closer to us than it is to you.”

Fear has led to a pre­dictable re­sponse: a mas­sive in­crease in law en­force­ment and do­mes­tic sur­veil­lance ef­forts. In May, France’s Par­lia­ment passed a law ex­pand­ing the gov­ern­ment’s spy­ing pow­ers, in­clud­ing col­lec­tion of meta­data — the same prac­tice Euro­peans de­nounced when Ed­ward Snow­den, the for­mer Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency con­tract worker, ex­posed its use by the United States. Mean­while, con­ser­va­tive politi­cians, fight­ing for at­ten­tion in the up­com­ing pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, have is­sued stark warn­ings of a grow­ing Is­lamic threat.

But the real source of the prob­lem, Filiu and other ex­perts say, lies in Syria and Iraq, where Is­lamic State was born.

“The only real an­swer is to neu­tral­ize them at the source, in both Syria and Iraq, and that can only be done by Sunni Arabs,” Filiu said.

“The Iraqi army can’t do it. You need Sunni in­sur­gents in both coun­tries. Con­trary to what Obama seems to think, we need them as much as they need us. They are the only de­fense line be­tween Daesh [the Ara­bic acro­nym for Is­lamic State] and Europe.”

In short, the French want Pres­i­dent Obama to ex­pand his fo­cus be­yond Iraq and in­ter­vene more di­rectly against Is­lamic State in Syria, in­clud­ing more aid to Syr­ian rebels who aren’t Is­lamic ex­trem­ists.

That’s not a new pol­icy. In 2013, French Pres­i­dent Fran­cois Hol­lande was the first for­eign leader to en­dorse Obama’s plan to launch airstrikes against Syria in re­tal­i­a­tion for the Damascus gov­ern­ment’s use of chem­i­cal weapons against rebel neigh­bor­hoods. The French were ex­as­per­ated when Obama changed his mind and can­celed the strikes.

And now, be­cause of Char­lie Hebdo and the fear of fur­ther at­tacks, the French are qui­etly re­new­ing their pleas for more Amer­i­can in­ter­ven­tion. They don’t think they can do it alone, and they don’t think the Euro­pean Union can agree on a joint ef­fort.

Their mes­sage: The war in Syria isn’t just a Mid­dle Eastern prob­lem or a sec­tar­ian fight be­tween Sunni and Shi­ite Mus­lims; it’s also a di­rect threat to U.S. al­lies in Europe — and that means the United States stays out at its own risk.

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