Signs of trouble
As the recent brutal attack on a French teacher shows, a new wave of radicalisation is gripping the nation, a distressing trend that may expand at any time to Europe and even beyond
The grotesque crime by a Chechen teenager in beheading a French teacher on October 16, in Conflans Sainte Honorine on the outskirts of Paris was as bone-chilling as an outright assault on the freedom of expression that is so dear to France and the French people. In fact the victim, Samuel Paty was teaching his students about the significance of freedom of expression in a Paris school which reached the perpetrator that his Prophet was subjected to insults as the teacher was telling his pupils what had happened to the Charlie Hebdo attacks of 2015. This had taken a toll of 250 people. Underlining the sanctity of the freedom of expression, Samuel Paty drew the attention of his students towards how Charlie Hebdo came under violent attacks for the cartoons of Prophet Mohammad that were drawn and the trail of violence that ensued.
Most ironically, this is the second case in three weeks of religious extremism linked violence in France sending shock waves. It may be recalled that only in the very recent past, an 18-year-old Pakistani boy injured a few French near the Charlie Hebdo office using a meat cleaver. These incidents, in quick succession, point towards the increasing cases of intolerance amongst a section of the Islamic immigrants living in the suburbs of Paris as also it demonstrates their scale of radicalisation. Earlier, it was thought that only Algerians, Moroccans or Tunisians living in France were resorting to terror violence but with fresh cases of complicity by Pakistani and Chechen (in this case from North Caucasus), shows that broadly, the French society is getting sharply polarised between Islamic extremists and the rest. This is a perilous trend.
On the other hand, French President, Emmanuel Macron's repeated assertion that such incidents are surely acts of Islamic terror have not augured well with the Islamists. His further calls to the French people to remain united as these terror assaults can't take away the spirit of freedom of expression nor can it divide the country. His bold resolve and rhetoric will undoubtedly strengthen the sense of nationalism and freedom of expression in the country, yet the counter-terror forces and the intelligence apparatus must be more alert than before more of pre-emptive actions than acting with alacrity after the deadly incident has already taken place.
In this beheading case, the police hunted the Chechen terrorist and neutralised him but if they had a whiff of his motives, this ghastly act could perhaps be avoided. For the amateurs, it might appear an uphill task to gather intelligence about an upcoming attack and to diffuse it but as a modern counter-terror force, armed with most sophisticated intelligence gadgetry, the expectations are surely high. French authorities must be knowing that the schools where such Charlie Hebdo cartoons related lessons are imparted the teachers give the option to the Muslim students to stay out of the class if they so wished. And in Samuel Patty's class, one or more students are believed to have told their parents about the sensitive lessons. Also, the killer was moving suspiciously outside the school to see the teacher (his target) and to be identified by one of the Muslim children. He was successful and however difficult the challenge was for the cops, they couldn't pre-empt these suspicious activities.
Now that the Chechen perpetrator is exposed and killed, police have stepped up its surveillance in the pockets inhabited by the Chechens in areas like Dijon, Nice and Saint Dizier. Many of them are often involved in criminal activities. Such vulnerable youth are fraught with the dangers of being further indoctrinated to resort to more mindless killings showing abhorrent levels of intolerance and respect for the host country.
As dealt earlier, it's the French intelligence system that needs to up its antenna more than before, to meet these ever-growing terror challenges. It's track record in dealing with its former colonies including Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, etc., in Africa leaves much to be desired as witnessed from the occasional terror incidents. France is thought to be still helping them in intelligence training punched with infrastructural and logistic support to keep it free from terror.
For intelligence cooperation, France has to collaborate more with Belgium, Holland and Germany as they have a large number of North African immigrants, many suspected to be radicalised and involved in terror strikes in the past.
Not to sound alarmist, the Paris beheading incident of October 16 may embolden the radical elements all over and the Indian sub-continent may not be an exception as the radicals have sympathisers even in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Dormant activists may be hibernating as part of a tactic. With a vibrant wave of radicalisation and increasing abuse of cyberspace, linkages between South Asian Islamic radicals and their counterparts in France and other parts of Europe exhort for an intensified vigil.
The writer is a retired IPS officer, a security analyst and the former National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of Mauritius. Views expressed are personal