Friday’s Paris attacks have once again put the spotlight on security in Europe, especially in France, as terror groups seem to be increasingly able to strike anywhere, any time, at will.
This, despite a heightened security environment in preparation for the climate change summit – COP21 – later this month when several heads of state and government are expected to descend on Paris.
There had been a lot of chatter heard by intelligence agencies here that the terrorists, suspected to be mainly from the Islamic State (IS), were planning something big, either just before or during the summit when over 40,000 persons, including around 50 heads of state and government would arrive from around the world.
The French government had visibly ramped up the security in Paris and the major cities of the country, with all important railway stations and airports being patrolled by army units.
The surveillance of suspects within France as well as outside had been upped and borders were being monitored very closely. As many as 30,000 security personnel are believed to have been deployed in order to secure the French capital.
Yet, the attackers managed to carry out a dramatic attack, duplicating the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, with similar elements of hostage-taking and random attacks on restaurants.
The 13/11 attacks were the bloodiest that the French capital has seen since the second World War and were different from the January attacks on the French weekly newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, for many reasons.
The first big change in the terrorists’ strategy is the target itself. The January attacks targeted a group of journalists, who the terrorists blamed for insulting Prophet Mohammed, through their caricatures. The second main target was a Jewish grocery store.
But Friday’s attacks did not target any particular group. Instead, they were aimed at creating panic, fear and a sense of deep insecurity amongst the French. The attackers picked up venues where the young would be present in large numbers.
And it looks that they have achieved their objective of a massive massacre. France has declared a state of emergency, tightened border controls and put greater pressure on its security apparatus.
It is evident that the attacks were the handiwork of the IS, the terror group which wants to establish an Islamic Caliphate in Middle East and parts of Europe.
Nearly 2,000 French nationals, mainly Muslims, are believed to have gone to Syria and Iraq to join in the battle led by IS. Some of them may have gone there because of the hype built around the European and US intervention in Libya, Iraq and Syria.
The propaganda clearly swayed many Muslim youths in France who went to join the battle at a time when the French authorities did not really monitor the people going to these countries. Many of them have since returned to France as hardcore sympathisers and see themselves as continuing their jihad in Europe.
The French security forces have been requesting additional means – manpower, equipment and legal backing – to be able to monitor and control high-risk elements, but so far little has come of it.
Last night’s attacks may changed the equation and the French President Francois Hollande will be under severe pressure to bring in significant changes in the way the country’s security apparatus is run and the means that it has at its disposal.
The carnage will also have deep political implications. France is headed for regional elections in less than three weeks and for the first time ever, the extreme right wing party, Front National (FN), led by Marine Le Pen is leading in polls both the traditional parties, the Republicans led by former president Nicolas Sarkozy and the Socialists led by President Hollande.
The attacks are bound to push more French voters towards Le Pen as some have come to believe that they cannot live in peace with the immigrants, especially the Muslim populace. The FN has been calling for stringent curbs on certain sections and certain practices, targeting mainly the Muslims in France who number about 10 pc of its 62 million people.
More worryingly for the French political mainstream would be the impact of 13/11 attacks on the presidential elections, slated within 18 months and where again Le Pen is currently leading. The divide in the French society is set to become deeper and perhaps more violent in the run up to the elections.
Ranvir Nayar is a senior Paris-based journalist.