Reflections on yet another terrorist attack in France

I guess we would call what happened in Strasbourg yesterday evening a case of deja-vu, and not just because that particular phrase is French in origin. A man armed with both a knife and a gunman attacked shoppers at that eastern French city’s famous Christmas market around 8 PM when he opened fire, killing at least 2 and wounding at least a dozen people. He too was shot by police but escaped – it is believed he may have fled to neighbouring Germany – and is currently being sought.

A few things about this attack strike me as significant:

  • the suspect is known to police and is likely a jihadi . His name is Cherif Chekkat, he was born in France (so much for the ‘terrorism is an immigration problem’ argument), he has a criminal record, he was incarcerated in Germany, he is believed to have been radicalised in French prisons, and authorities tried to arrest him the morning of his attack (he was not there but five others were seized as well as a grenade, a rifle and four knives).  These facts point to the links between garden-variety criminality –  one term being used is ‘gangster jihadist’ – and prison radicalisation in France, two issues that are not nearly as significant in my country (Canada).  The fact that he yelled ‘Allahu Akbar’ during his attack seals that deal that he is a jihadi.
  • the selection of a Christmas market is significant.  The Strasbourg market was the subject of a planned Al Qaeda attack back in 2000 (that one was foiled: ten were jailed for that plot four years later) and the Berlin market was targeted by a terrorist driver in 2016 (12 were killed in that incident).  Christmas markets appeal to jihadis for several reasons: they are packed with people, they are really hard to secure due to their size (geographic footprint) even if security is increased, and they are tied to Christianity, which jihadis hate.
  • despite the fact that the suspect was on the radar of French security forces (the so-called ‘S’ list), failing to find and/or arrest these guys is a real challenge.   France is aware of 18,000 radicalised people: no security service or community can monitor 18,000 people.
  • France has raised its security level to ‘emergency attack‘.  It is probable this is in direct connection to this attack and the need for extraordinary powers to find and neutralise him and not because French security agencies are seeing other information/intelligence that points to a growing concern of more attacks.  Normally it is the latter criterion.
  • The attack comes at the same time as the ‘gilets jaunes’ demonstrations have become violent and have plunged France into chaos.  It is unclear what this attack means for those protests or the government’s reaction to them. In some way the Strasbourg killings are a welcome reprieve for what President Macron has been dealing with  of late (no, I am not suggesting a ‘wag the dog’ scenario, although conspiracy theorists saying that the French government planned the attack are already busy).
  • The attack is a timely reminder that with all the talk of the rise of the far right and populism the jihadi threat remains the single greatest terrorist one.  No, we cannot ignore other menaces but let’s classify the nature of the challenge correctly.

We will see more of these attacks in the days, weeks and years to come.  Most will be foiled; some will succeed.  Get used to it.  As one resident in Strasbourg stated: “We knew his was going to happen one day. We knew the city was a target, especially at Christmas. We just weren’t expecting it to happen tonight.”

My condolences to the victims and their families in Strasbourg.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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