Gregg Roman

What France Can Learn from Israel in Confronting Islamist Terror

As my French friends, colleagues, and acquaintances agonize over what is to be done in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, the best advice I can think of is to look at Israel.

This tragedy was not “France’s 9/11.”  Al-Qaeda effectively depleted its stateside human assets in that attack and never regained the ability to strike the American heartland.  This is France’s Al-Aqsa Intifada – unfortunately, more of the same is absolutely going to follow. Whatever one’s political predisposition to Israeli counterterrorism policies may be, its success fighting Islamist terror over the past two decades is the only real-world model for overcoming the specific challenges France now faces.

Here are some of the main takeaways.

First, it’s time to sacrifice some freedoms of convenience. Most Israelis don’t know what it’s like to walk into a mid-size concert venue of the kind targeted in France without passing through a metal detector and their government intends to keep it that way.  They may gripe about it, but they would feel less free if their government wasn’t inconveniencing them on a daily basis.

Second, go ahead and profile. All of the jihadists bent on terrorizing France have some obvious commonalities. The reason Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport is considered the gold standard of airline security is that Israeli screeners are encouraged to single out passengers for extra scrutiny on the basis of religion, age, gender, and so forth, while waving the vast majority through terminals more quickly.  Not even the most seasoned terrorist is likely to take the risk of running this gauntlet if he knows for certain he’s going to find himself in a room full of inquisitive Israelis.

Third, recognize that deterrence isn’t fair. Since it’s impossible to dissuade suicide bombers with the threat of certain death or bodily harm, you have to threaten things they care about. Israel’s policy of demolishing the family homes of Palestinian terrorists may not be altogether “just,” but it’s necessary to counter the overwhelmingly positive social approval and financial benefits these families receive for contributing “martyrs” to the cause.

If being related to a terrorist isn’t already a deeply unpleasant experience in France, make it so. Understand that it’s neither possible nor desirable to ensure that terrorists are the only ones paying a price for their terrorism.  Make whatever efforts to avoid harming innocents are consistent with your values, but don’t let the backlash from armchair counter-terrorists and Francophobes abroad dictate policy.

Fourth, target the brains behind terrorist infrastructure.  Go after the people responsible for recruiting, financing, training, motivating and directing Jihadis, not just the foot soldiers. Prosecute them if you can, but if they’re overseas don’t be afraid to dispense swifter justice. Though controversial when Israel first adopted targeted killing as a counterterrorism tool, most governments (including most notably the Obama administration) now recognize its effectiveness. The number of fatalities from suicide bombings in Israel dropped from hundreds in 2002 to zero in 2010.

Fifth, fight the incitement.  Americans can still afford to pretend that Islamist hate speech and indoctrination has little to do with terrorist violence, but France can’t. The French government took a step in the right direction when it deported 40 Islamists accused of incitement in June of this year.  It needs to go further. Instead of avoiding the banlieues, rings of Muslim majority neighborhoods around French cities that are impoverished, crime-ridden, and blighted, gendarmeries and intelligence services should sweep into these suburbs and place community centers, mosques, and high rises under surveillance.  Checkpoints should be setup at the entrances to Islamist havens and searches conducted on those commuting in and out of these areas.

Sixth, France must prioritize national security interests over sectarian grievances.  It’s understandable that French Muslims are frustrated by their socio-economic marginalization, and there is surely room for improvement in how the authorities treat this estranged minority.   But the rights and wrongs of this issue don’t diminish France’s right to defend itself or alter fundamental realities about what it takes to do that.

Finally, at the risk of belaboring the obvious, France must control and monitor its borders if it wishes to avoid a repeat of Friday’s terror attacks.  The ability of at least one of the attackers to claim refugee status in Greece and move onto France was an intelligence failure of the highest degree.  As Sweden, Germany, Austria, and other countries reconsider Schengen, an agreement that allows uninhibited movement around Europe, so too should France. The French Interior ministry instituted border controls immediately after the attack. This change should be permanent.

As President François Hollande declared after the attacks, France is reeling from an “act of war,” not a crime wave.  Israel has demonstrated that it is possible to win such wars, but this isn’t for the faint-hearted.

About the Author
Gregg Roman is Director of the Middle East Forum, a research center headquartered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
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