I have covered a lot of terrorist attacks in
my lifetime: in Tunisia, Casablanca, Copenhagen, Toulouse, Baghdad, and
countless other places. The Israeli Embassy in Mauritania, which I
headed for a time, was the target of an al-Qaida attack in 2008. I
became a victim of jihadist terrorism when terrorists tried to hurt my
staff and my family in the name of Allah.
But this past week in Paris has been, without a
doubt, the worst. Not just because of the sheer number of terrorists
(eight or nine) involved in last Friday's assault on the French capital,
and not just because of the overwhelming number of victims (129 dead
and many more injured), but because of the location: the magical city of
lights, which I called home for 16 years.
Until now, Paris had never experienced a
suicide bombing. Last Friday, six terrorists detonated explosives
strapped to their bodies and another, a woman, detonated herself in the
Paris suburb of Saint-Denis during a police raid on Wednesday. The
jihadists came to Paris to put out its eternal lights. They succeeded.
The city of lights went dark overnight.
"Look at their expressions. They have seen
hell," said French President Francois Hollande to his aides when he
arrived at the scene of the attacks in the 11th arrondissement of Paris
at 2 a.m. "We are at war," he announced. But with whom are we at war?
That is a complicated question, with no clear answer.
France tried so hard to placate Islam. It
built many mosques and afforded a great deal of respect to the world's
second most popular religion. When you have 7 million Muslims living in
the republic, there is not a whole lot else you can do. We have come
such a long way since 1741, when Voltaire's play "Mahomet (Le Fanatisme,
ou Mahomet le Prophete)" described the Muslim Prophet Muhammad as
fanatical, cruel and cunning.
Voltaire, one of France's foremost writers
throughout history, later changed his stance and praised Muhammad at the
expense of Christianity. He, much like the rest of France, made peace
with Muhammad and with Islam.
But the terrorist cells opted to prove to the
world that they can, and should, commit horrible crimes in the name of
Allah and the prophet. Votaire's change of heart was not enough for the
jihadists of Islamic State. They may never have heard of Voltaire, but
in a recent announcement they declared that France was a prime target
for attacks because of the permissive lifestyle of the "infidels" who
The people I met this week in France were not
in a state of anxiety, fear or disgust. They were in shock and they were
having trouble understanding what had happened. The residents of Paris
may have experienced terrorist attacks in the not so distant past, but
then there was a reason for each attack. In 1980, in the attack on a
synagogue on Copernic Street, then-French Prime Minister Raymond Barre
said that "this odious bombing wanted to strike Jews who were going to
the synagogue and it hit innocent French people who crossed Copernic
Street," implying that the Jews were not innocent. The Jews were deeply
hurt by the remark, and rightfully so, but the remark was very telling:
The French can tolerate terrorism, as long as it does not target the
French. The same was true in the 1990s, when the reason was the civil
war in Algeria.
Then came the attacks in January this year.
First was the attack on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
Ostensibly, there was a reason for the attack: It targeted journalists
who had dared make fun of the Prophet Muhammad. Two days later there was
an attack on a kosher supermarket. Millions took to the streets to
protest the assault on journalists and Jews, but no average Frenchman
was ever really in danger. Or at least that is what they wanted to
believe as they buried their heads in the sand.
But on Friday, Nov. 13, that construct
collapsed entirely. The terrorists set their sights on the Bataclan
concert hall (where people of all ages come to listen to music) and a
number of cafes and restaurants in the 10th and 11th arrondissements
(and who in Paris doesn't frequent a cafe?), and just to demonstrate how
random the attacks were, and that absolutely anyone could have been a
victim, they set off a number of explosions outside the Stade de France
stadium. Everyone goes to the Stade de France, including many Muslims
France was shocked to see the writing that had
been on the wall all along. Jihadism had only been looking for an
opportunity to strike. Where al-Qaida failed, Islamic State succeeded,
and is now a source of true terror in the country. They even managed to
get the Eiffel Tower to go dark for three days of mourning.
There is no doubt that the French do not
understand where this terrorist assault came from. They don't understand
how France of all places -- the birthplace of human rights, which has
welcomed immigrants throughout history -- is paying the price of the
jihad it harbors within it, the product of third-generation immigrants
from the Maghreb region.
I walked around the suburbs of Paris a lot
this week. I visited the mosque frequented by Omar Ismail Mostefai, who
blew himself up in the Bataclan concert hall in order to kill as many
people as possible. I spoke to worshippers at the mosque. Karim, 40,
told me the same thing that I heard from every Muslim I spoke to. "What
the jihadists are doing is not Islam," he said, but, like everyone else,
added that the miserable living conditions and the failed absorption of
those sons of immigrants into French society have pushed them to seek
the kind of radicalism that Islamic State represents. I didn't hear him
say that terrorism is terrorism, regardless of where in the world it is
It is true that the vast majority of the
Muslims with whom I spoke condemned terrorism outright. But they refused
to recognize that there is incitement in the mosques. They mainly made
excuses. That is the real danger. No one here wants to see that there is
a clash of religions underway, even though the images seen from the
cathedral in Saint-Denis on Wednesday must have reminded many of those
dark days when Muslims and Christians butchered one another. It is
precisely this feeling that the French are desperately trying to avoid.
It is also the reason why the republic will be very disappointed if the
National Front, headed by radical right-winger Marine Le Pen, will make
dramatic gains in the regional elections next month. To a certain
extent, this was foreseen by French writer Michel Houellebecq in his
novel "Submission." The general direction: a head-on collision in the
streets of Paris between the extreme Right and jihadists.
On Sunday I visited the Place de la
Republique. Among the many French people at the square, a young woman
named Valerie was holding a single rose. She looked very sad. Two of her
fellow students at the Sorbonne had been killed at the nearby Bataclan.
She was also supposed to have gone to the concert that night, but she
felt ill and stayed home. On Friday, she shuddered to think, she was
jealous of them.
"This is not our Paris," says Valerie, who is
studying literature and dreams of becoming a teacher. "Education is
important. After these attacks I want to teach in the poor areas. I
don't want any more young people to take the path of groups like Islamic
State. I want to teach children of all religions the values of my
secular republic that respects all religions."
Q: Do you think France will win this battle?
"Today I don't know," she says. "Yesterday I
had an answer. Yesterday I was sure." But like many young people, she is
now very confused.
A group of people around us begins to sing
"Bataclan, we will return" and "Stade de France, we will return."
Suddenly we hear a loud explosion, and panic sets in. Valerie
disappears. The crowd is convinced that this is another attack. Not far
from where I'm standing I see an empty stroller with no one around. The
parent grabbed the child from it and ran. This is the new reality in
Later that day, only a handful of people
return to the square. So what if it was only a terrible prank? Just
children playing with firecrackers at a very bad time?
Who poured the poison?
Mark, 50, is a member of the local council in
the high-class suburb of Neuilly. This suburb, where former French
President Nicolas Sarkozy once served as mayor, is rich and luxurious,
the mirror image of Saint-Denis. On weekends, the locals like to visit a
famous Italian restaurant, whose patrons include many Jews. Mark is one
The grandson of the founder of this
restaurant, Pierre Innocenti, is a good friend of Mark's. On Friday,
Pierre posted a picture of himself and his cousin Stephane Albertini
enjoying the Eagles of Death Metal concert at the Bataclan. He was
supposed to inherit the restaurant one day, together with his brother.
That will never happen now.
"I lost a friend," says Mark, who is having
trouble hiding his profound sorrow. "We refused to see the reality as it
truly was. I hope that now, the French understand, but I can't say that
I'm sure they do."
This week I walked past the restaurant during
the evening. Normally there is a long line of people waiting to be
seated. It was closed. The wreaths piled at the entrance told the story
of what had happened. Neuilly is seen as detached from the day-to-day
reality, as a separate planet, removed from the daily grind. But it,
too, fell victim to jihad. The restaurant, one of the symbols of the
entire suburb, was closed for three days.
I was reminded of another Mark, Mark Trevidic,
a French judge whose area of expertise is terrorism. This week, many
people began viewing him as a prophet of doom after he foresaw Friday's
attacks. "We [France] have become Islamic State's number one enemy," he
said in an interview on Sept. 30, six weeks before the attacks. "France
is the chief target for terrorists."
After the attacks, Trevidic became very sought
after. He was a guest on all the television channels. But he is still
pessimistic. He believes that there is still more to come. "There will
be more attacks," he says. "We have entered into a confrontation with
Islamic State terrorists, who obviously don't expect us to end the
strikes in Syria. France will hit them harder and they will respond by
perpetrating more attacks on our soil. From now one, this is the logic
in which we must operate."
Trevidic welcomes Hollande's decision to
declare a state of emergency in France -- a rare move that was first
enacted in 1955 following the outbreak of the Algerian war. But Trevidic
asks that France refrain from responding too dramatically. "We are
running the risk of pushing moderate Muslims to radicalize if they feel
persecuted," he says. "That is exactly what al-Qaida tried to do in the
past and what Islamic State is trying to do now."
Trevidic thinks that France needs to
completely change its outlook. The general attitude in his country makes
him extremely angry, and you can't blame him. According to him, it is
unthinkable that France tiptoe around the concept of war, talking
instead about "peace forces," and then be shocked by Islamic State
attacks. Just recently, he notes, Islamic State terrorists downed a
Russian plane over Sinai and carried out a terrorist attack in Beirut,
and immediately afterward set their sights on Paris.
In the French media, Trevidic was asked whether France needs to recalculate its foreign policy course.
"The story is to dictate the necessary minimum
to a number of countries," he replies. "I am thinking mainly about
Turkey because of Turkey's ambivalent attitude toward Islamic State. In a
wider sense, I would say that France has lost its credibility in its
relations with Saudi Arabia. We know very well that it was this Gulf
state that poured the poison known as Wahhabism [the strict
interpretation of Islam followed in Saudi Arabia] into the cup. The
terrorist attacks in Paris are just a part of the result. To declare war
on Islam while simultaneously shaking the hand of the Saudi king is
like saying you are fighting Hitler while inviting him to your table."
Trevidic has had the opportunity to question
many French nationals after their return from Syria. Perhaps this is the
source of his pessimism.
"For three years, we allowed this monster to
grow," he says. "The Islamic State organization has been dreaming of
only one thing: to strike France. They will use any means possible to
realize this dream. The last suspect who was in my office in mid-August
admitted that he had been asked to carry out an attack at a rock
concert. When you see the level of the coordination behind the attacks,
you understand that these people are professionals. They are fighters
sent to fight us. I think that if today an emir of an Islamic country
was to look for volunteers to commit attacks in France, 200 hands would
be raised. For 10 years we did nothing. We did nothing in the holding
cells, we did nothing online, and we allowed this material to enter
every home, exposing 12-year-olds to jihadist videos."
Many people in France are convinced that the
2005 riots were a precursor to what is happening now. France did not
respond too harshly to the acts of the rioters from the suburbs. French
Justice Minister Christian Taubira believes in taking a lenient approach
in dealing with them. But the fact is that one of Friday's attackers,
Mostefai, had committed eight crimes between 2004 and 2010 and did not
spend even one day in jail.
Don't let them win
Eric is an attorney with 20 years experience. I
meet him at a cafe in the 17th arrondissement. There are 11 tables; 10
of them are empty. Eric, an expert litigator, does not like the
constitutional reform proposed by Hollande on Monday.
"What is he trying to say?" he asks. "That
eight terrorists can change our historical constitution that was
inspired by General de Gaulle? We need to take things in the proper
proportions. There is a limit to what jihadists should be able to do.
They want to change France, and just take a look around: This week we
closed theaters, museums and schools. We played directly into their
hands. That is exactly what the terrorists want. Islamic State's victory
is not just over the attacks in Syria. Victory means maintaining a
normal life, without falling into insanity."
As for himself, he refuses to change any part of his daily routine.
"We need to move on. I think that the routine is the best escape and I hope that it will soon be restored in France," he says.
I lived in Paris for 16 years. I always saw it
happy and joyous, even after the devastating attacks in January. Then,
the French public responded to terrorism by staging demonstrations and
marches, expressing their feelings through song and pride. This time it
is different. Three days of mourning and a national state of emergency
have prompted the French to stay in their homes.
It is hard to believe that France will bounce
back quickly. The attacks of Friday Nov. 13 have left a nasty scar
across the face of this magical country. For years, France has been the
world's number one tourist destination, but this week every branch of
tourism experienced an avalanche of cancellations. The only ones to save
the hotel industry were the journalists who came to cover the events.
Putin, the big winner
Like everything else in life, here too there
are winners and losers. The big winner this week was Russian President
Vladimir Putin, the man who went to war against Ukraine and annexed
Crimea, and then saw the West gang up on him and impose tough sanctions.
It was only two weeks ago that Islamic State
terrorists bombed a Russian plane, and Putin was at his weakest. But he
bet on Syria, thus making an unbelievably smart move. Suddenly France,
which had previously come out against him and refused to sell him
warships, became his ally in the war on Islamic State. The legitimacy he
lost in Ukraine, he regained in Syria. The attacks in Paris managed to
achieve two impossible feats: They turned Putin into the West's darling,
and they turned the lights off in the Eiffel Tower, albeit temporarily.
But the lights have come back on, in the
colors of the French flag. "We are not so patriotic here in France,"
says Caroline Delase, a French journalist who worked in Israel. "Waving
the flag anywhere but at soccer matches is considered old-fashioned."
But Islamic State terrorists have brought the
French flag back into fashion. France is at war, and in war, the first
thing you do is to take out the flag. Terrorism has made the French less
joyous but more patriotic.
It has been a tumultuous and crazy week in
Paris. I thought deeply about what I saw and heard. I thought about
those who have been trying to find justification for the violence, to
understand the attackers and provide excuses for terrorism, as though
desperation can excuse murder. I thought about the humanism that the
French are so proud of. Between ceremonies, between attacks and
manhunts, I passed by the famous Cafe de Flore. I thought about Nobel
Prize Laureate Albert Camus who loved to sit there, on the left bank of
the Seine. I thought about the things he wrote in his wonderful book
"The Plague" that now ring truer than ever:
"When war breaks out people say: 'It won't
last, it's too stupid.' And war is certainly too stupid, but that
doesn't prevent it from lasting. Stupidity always carries doggedly on,
as people would notice if they were not always thinking about
themselves. In this respect, the citizens of Oran were like the rest of
the world, they thought about themselves; in other words, they were
humanists: they did not believe in pestilence. A pestilence does not
have human dimensions, so people tell themselves that it is unreal, that
it is a bad dream which will end. But it does not always end and, from
one bad dream to the next, it is people who end, humanists first of all
because they have not prepared themselves."