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We Asked Experts How France Will Respond to the Paris Terror Attacks

The government has already launched a series of police raids and bombed the Islamic State in Syria, but what's next?

Police stand guard in Paris on November 15. Bruno Barbey/Magnum Photos

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The attacks in Paris on Friday represented the worst violence against France since World War Two and the deadliest terrorist attack in Europe since the 2004 Madrid train bombings killed 191. As the French grieve for the fallen at massive public memorials, their country's leaders have vowed a swift and severe response against the Islamic State, who claimed responsibility for the series of bombings and shootings that left 129 dead. French police have conducted raids targeting terrorism suspects all over the country, while other suspects were captured in Brussels. And on Sunday, France launched an airstrike against an IS munitions depot and training camp in the group's self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa.


"France is at war," French President Francois Hollande put it bluntly in a speech on Monday.

Follow the latest updates from France with the VICE News liveblog

Though French operations against IS will undoubtedly escalate in the days ahead, France's war on terror is not new. One of the leaders of the coalition against Libya's Moammar Gaddafi in 2011, France has taken point in the fight against Islamist groups and other militants who've proliferated in the western Saharan since then, keeping at least 3,000 boots on the ground in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. In 2014, it was the first European power to join the United States in airstrikes against IS targets in Iraq; this September they expanded their strikes to Syria.

If and how France's immediate response to the attacks will translate into medium- and long-term policy changes remains unclear. The state could do anything from put boots on the ground in Syria to beef up domestic security forces to ratchet up border controls and crackdowns on Muslim communities to simply hold its previous patterns of counterterror response.

Looking to understand more about France's external and internal security calculations in this period of strife and sorrow, and to get a sense of what we may see from the nation in the coming weeks, months, and years, VICE turned to Christopher Chivvis, associate director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at RAND and a European security issues specialist, and Patrick Skinner, an ex-CIA officer and counterterrorism expert currently serving as director of special projects for the security intelligence firm the Soufan Group. They both agreed that France's response has not been extreme by its standards, and will likely focus on domestic security policy rather than any serious expansion of direct conflict in Syria.


VICE: How should we read the Syrian airstrikes and domestic police raids France carried out this weekend—are they in line with its existing security policy, or indicative of something new?
Patrick Skinner: It's a textbook response, domestically. They're looking for this eighth suspect—it's a manhunt—but they're also looking for a way to disrupt… the usual suspects. It's a lot of raids and that tells you they have a lot of people on their threat matrix, in fact too many. They need [people unrelated to the plot] to know, Hey, you're on our radar. They found weapons [during the raids], so it's not meaningless; it's not theatre. It's important to keep these guys off balance.

Christopher Chivvis: It's not a major change from what we've seen in the past in terms of French reactions to terrorism domestically. The challenge is they've already strengthened security measures back in January. Frances has got highly capable forces in terms of prevention, investigation, and rounding up the networks that existed in France itself. But they're a little bit overwhelmed and they have been since Charlie Hebdo with the magnitude of the challenge that they face with their own populations of concern as well as now the added problem of migrants.

Skinner: As for the airstrikes… that's more theatrical. The threat's coming from Raqqa, but you're not going to bomb your way out of that. If you were, you're going to bomb Belgium and France because now the problem is there.


Chivvis: [It was] obviously a very rapid response. But in the past France has proven itself very capable of responding quickly when it decides it's going to do something. [In Mali] it acted with ground forces and special forces in addition to airstrikes, so obviously the question that everybody's wondering about is, is that the question that we're headed in with Daesh [another name for IS] in Syria?

"They put on a big show yesterday. Twenty airstrikes is not a small thing. Will they maintain that pace? No, they won't."
—Patrick Skinner

Is France likely to ramp up its actions in Syria after these attacks?
Skinner: They put on a big show yesterday. Twenty airstrikes is not a small thing. Will they maintain that pace? No, they won't. The US doesn't really even do 20 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. [France is] going to play a bigger role, but I don't see any possibility of French putting large numbers of troops on the ground. They might have special forces along with a lot of other countries. But I don't see [their role] shifting [much]. France is part of the anti-ISIS coalition. They might be more enthusiastic right now. But their problem, it might be radiating from Syria, but it's already in France and Belgium and the area… They might focus more in Libya where they have some interests. But they'll just do what they're doing now—maybe a little bit more.

Chivvis: They can play a really important role both by contributing military assets [to existing campaigns] and arguably even more importantly by generating international will to go further in the fight against Daesh. The options there could be to support the establishment of some kind of humanitarian corridor [on the Turkish or Jordanian border, or joining] the United States in deploying trainers and other special forces to support the Iraqis, the moderate opposition in Syria. [But] the French couldn't mount a full-scale ground operation on their own. They would need a huge amount of support form other countries, most of all the United States. And it's not clear to me that these attacks, no matter how horrible, have actually moved the needle on the domestic discussion in the Untied States to the point where the US is going to consider deploying ground forces in Iraq and Syria.


Is France likely to make any major security or counter-terrorism changes domestically?
*Chivvis:* You're likely to see more support for tightening up on border security, to revisit [Europe's free movement agreements]. These are significant changes in terms of French mainstream thinking, France having been the key supporter of European integration and these attacks working against that on multiple levels.

In terms of security policy, the big question is whether this is going to lead to any big changes in the resources that the French [and other European nations] dedicate towards defense and security. Given the challenges that Europe faces right now, whether it's from the east or the south, it's hard not to believe that those increases aren't going to be necessary. Those changes don't happen overnight, though.

"I think the EU's going to have to really struggle to not react in a broad manner, but it's understandable why they'd want to do it. It's not insane, it's just counterproductive."
—Patrick Skinner

Skinner: I just saw that they announced they're going to hire 2,500 more police and some other military police. But… it's not just a matter of numbers, it's a matter of analysis. You'll never be able to hire enough people to physically monitor [everyone] so you'll just have to get better at threat assessment and prioritizing and understanding that this guy is a bigger threat than this guy and here's why based on limited information and it's hard to do. It's a rational decision, but those changes won't take effect… for years [due to the training time for recruits]. These are longer- and middle-term solutions, and meanwhile the problem is still getting worse.


The attack will have a real big [effect] and it's mostly going to be negative for the Syrian refugees. I think the EU's going to have to really struggle to not react in a broad manner, but it's understandable why they'd want to do it. It's not insane, it's just counterproductive.

France plays a huge role in NATO, so how might the attacks in Paris trickle back into the way that group address IS, security, and counterterrorism?
*Chivvis:* For NATO, the question is first of all does Article 5 [the mutual defense clause] apply, or could it apply? I think that most NATO experts agree that in a case in which France wanted to invoke [it], it would be legitimate. In general, France has preferred not to go to NATO for military operations [to its] south. It tends to view NATO as primarily focused on the eastern [i.e. the Russian] question. And there's a question of if NATO did invoke Article 5, what would it actually do? You could have an Article 5 agreement without a significant military role. There are a number of things that it might do short of [an on-the-ground operation].

We've discussed what France is likely to do, but what should France do going forward?
Skinner: The military stuff does have an effect. They're in no danger of being overwhelmed, but [ISIS is] getting pounded. They've never faced this kind of pressure militarily. If France increases that, that makes it a little worse for ISIS. But the [IS] ideology is way out of the bottle now so they're going to have to address what's happening inside now as well as outside.

France is a vulnerable country. They have to readjust some of their laws while maintaining civil liberties if they want to nip this in the bud, otherwise it'll just continue… But it's really hard to do.

While the threats look like they're coming from outside, they've got to handle extremism [on the inside]. They've got a lot of areas full of very disaffected people. You're never going to have a utopian society, but they've got to do something about this. So they're going to have to do more about disruption—you might have to arrest this guy for jaywalking or something just to get him out of the system for a little bit. Because it's clear that these people can plot with some kind of comfort… But then you might just be wasting time because they weren't going to do anything anyway. It's difficult to do well on such a large scale.