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Terrorism in Paris: hard lessons for soft borders

Bruce Newsome, Lecturer in International Relations | November 15, 2015

Terrorism in Paris is not France’s fault, it’s Europe’s fault.

In less than three hours on the night of Friday 13 November 2015, seven men killed 129 people, wounded 352, mostly with small arms (their suicide explosives were used to martyr themselves at the end of their killing sprees). The Islamic State in Syria, Iraq, and the Levant (ISIL) has claimed responsibility.

France’s terrorism risk is out of control. France put thousands of soldiers on the streets since the attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine on 7 January, whose conspirators killed 12, also claiming allegiance to ISIL. In the next months, French suffered a rash of Jihadi-inspired stabbings and beheadings, although France claims to have intercepted at least half-a-dozen other plots. On 13 November, attackers avoided the soldiers by striking at unprotected restaurants, bars, and a concert hall (two blew themselves up at the well-protected national stadium, where lethality was lowest). Clearly, more soldiers cannot secure Paris.

So far the focus of blame is France’s intelligence failure. Huh? How could French intelligence be expected to track threats who may have been in Syria a month ago? Even if French intelligence could track such threats, how would France have stopped them crossing into France, once they had crossed into Europe?

Open borders

Fashionable political agendas tend to avoid the bleeding obvious. France cannot secure itself with open borders. No state could secure itself with open borders. Homeland security is impossible without control of borders. Yet the European Union (EU) maintains the principle of free movement of peoples within the borders of the EU as if it has no implications for security, as if the principle is so inviolate that one should lie about its implications, or be accused of being anti-European.

Within an hour of the first attack, France declared that its borders had been closed, but the borders were not closed: some of the roads were subject to random spot checks, which amounted to asking drivers to wave a passport: France kept no record of whoever arrived or departed across its borders during the state of emergency, unless the traveler was traveling from a non-EU country on a non-EU passport. Most disruption was due to the voluntary cancellation of trains or flights by cautious operators.

Foreign staging

At least one of the attackers was a French citizen with a criminal record and a known Jihadist history, which probably means that he had travelled to Syria to fight with ISIL and returned to Europe without official discovery.

At least one of the attackers was probably an illegal immigrant from Syria. Somebody carried into an attack site a passport used by a man who registered in Greece as a refugee on 3 October, having crossed the sea from Turkey. France is searching for another two men who registered as refugees in Greece around then. Even if the passport was stolen, its own travels prove that once a threat is within the EU the threat is to practically anywhere within the EU.

One team of attackers hired a car in Belgium, whose discovery prompted five arrests there. Another suspected attacker was arrested in Germany during the previous week with weapons in his car and the car’s navigation system set for Paris.

These foreign staging areas should remind us of France’s prior lucky escape. On 21 August, a Moroccan got on a train from Amsterdam to Paris with several small arms, but his rifle jammed long enough for him to be over-powered by alert passengers – he wounded four but did not kill anyone.

This occurred just after the train crossed the border from Belgium into France. All the soldiers and intelligence officers in France could not have stopped the attacker getting on that train without foreign cooperation, but threats can move quicker within a borderless EU than the EU can react. The EU has no police force, only an intelligence coordinating agency, which member states tend to forget in their haste to work with the most relevant national liaisons.

EU failings

On the day before the attacks of 13 November, the European Council’s president warned that the Schengen area was under threat, but failed to offer change. The Schengen regime (named after a town where the original treaty was signed) requires almost all members of the EU to allow completely free movement over their shared borders, despite months of international migrant crises and national defections.

The EU just throws money at the problem. Two days before the attacks, the EU agreed to pay more than $3 billion to Turkey, and almost as much to African states, to help them to prevent migrants leaving their borders, without any guarantees. Those monies are more likely to fund the corruption and conflict that drive migrants away in the first place.

Meanwhile, the EU has failed to agree a policy on the currently received illegal immigrants, which have surpassed 750,000 this year, almost all of them claiming asylum. European journalists have focused on migrants from war-torn Syria – BBC journalists have even traveled with them – but most are not Syrian, and genuine refugees from Syria are already accommodated in Turkey or Jordan without a hazardous journey across the seas and mountains of southern Europe.

The EU has agreed no policy to prevent illegal immigration, to filter refugees from false claimants, or to deport illegal migrants – the EU effectively allows all illegal immigrants as if they are refugees, after which it loses track. It leaves all immigrant problems to member states, while complaining when member states act unilaterally.

Britain has not joined the Schengen area, and the English Channel is a major barrier, but its border controls are still ineffective, due to the EU principle of free movement, human rights protections, and politicized mis-characterization of border security as prejudicial. From June to August 2015, illegal migrants effectively shut down the main ports between France and Britain, who blamed each other, before French or British politicians acted to secure the ports, when they were accused of heartlessness and racism. Huh? To conflate criminal entrants as if all are legitimate refugees is no better than to conflate all refugees as if they were economic migrants.

Genuine refugees do worst

Not enforcing border controls is worst for genuine refugees: insecure borders favor the fit young men with the most capacity to travel, to find work, and to evade access controls; families with enough money to pay the smugglers also do well; ISIL fighters who are both young men and wealthy do best. The poor huddled masses are left behind.

ISIL’s leaders have boasted that they have sent fighters to Europe via the illegal maritime route. One Syrian member claimed that ISIL had smuggled in more than 4,000 by September. If the true number is 400 or even 4, should we be reassured?

Complacency

Over the last year, western governments have been complacent about the capacity of air strikes to defeat ISIL and about ISIL’s intent to strike in the west. The threat from ISIL is growing internationally – it has allies from the west coast of Africa to south-east Asia. The day before the attacks in Paris, ISIL claimed responsibility for suicide bombings that killed at least 37 in Beirut. On 31 October, the Islamic State bombed a Russian passenger plane over Egypt, killing all 224 people on board. On 10 October, ISIL’s suicide bombers killed at least 128 at a peace rally in Turkey. Clearly, no country alone can counter this threat.

Yet the immediate response to the Paris attacks of 13 November is more conservatism and complacency. The BBC has tended to interview people who think that the Paris attacks demonstrate ISIL’s weakness but do not demonstrate Europe’s weakness. For instance, Chris Phillips, formerly head of Britain’s National Counter Terrorism Security Office (2005-2011), told the BBC that we should “learn” from the Paris attack, but we should not “change” because “the whole point of terrorism is it makes us change; the best thing we can do…is do everything we can to keep going”. Huh? France has suffered its deadliest attack since the Second World War, but we should be change-averse?

European security needs to change

Clearly European security needs to change, and France has the most stake and the most influence in the EU. It needs to improve European border security first, before it blames national security.

Comments to “Terrorism in Paris: hard lessons for soft borders

  1. Hi, Very true. We need to first start by closing borders and see if this will help…I personally think it will reduce local attacks. Then you can think about foreign measures to control them. I’m afraid the problem is too big where the only option left is containing them and NOT eliminating (if that an option?)

  2. The U.S. has been supporting rebel groups that have been fighting ISIS, yet the U.S. has not targeted known ISIS oil smuggling tanker truck convoys that provide money to ISIS.

    “United States warplanes for the first time attacked hundreds of trucks on Monday that the extremist group has been using to smuggle the crude oil it has been producing in Syria, American officials said.”
    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/17/world/middleeast/us-strikes-syria-oil.html

    Can anyone justify the ‘logic’ that has allowed ISIS oil sales to continue until today?

  3. Nailed it. everyone is talking about bombing Isis in Syria, but why don’t we start by not letting them into Europe, otherwise it will happen again.

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