France and the Trap of “War on Terrorism”


Lorris Beverelli

France, once more, faces terrorism. The murder of French teacher Samuel Paty on October 16th, 2020 by a radical Muslim and the knife attack in Nice less than two weeks later on October 29th led to political and social-level talks in the country about France and radical Islamic terrorism. Among these discussions, people have mentioned that France was “at war” against “Islamist terrorism” or the ideology of “radical Islamism.”[1] Even former armed forces chief of staff General (ret.) Pierre de Villiers recognized that France was waging a war.[2] As a matter of fact, such an idea is not new. In September 2020, and on October 30th, Minister of the Interior Gérald Darmanin stated that France was respectively at war against “Islamic terrorism” and “Islamist ideology.” [3] Back in 2015, former President François Hollande had also used the word “war” after the terrorist attacks in November of that year.[4]

However, using the word “war” to describe the current security situation France is facing may be a mistake. Indeed, there seems to be a misunderstanding of the meaning of “war” among part of the French politicians and the French population. War can simply be defined as a military engagement between at least two adversaries (typically states) to achieve one or multiple political goals. Ideally, such objectives are realistic and limited – which essentially means that they should be achievable in a relatively limited period of time, and relative to the available means and tools. Furthermore, being at war implies being able to win it. Victory can have many faces, but it is likely that an uninformed general public would tend to perceive victory as something decisive and well-defined, with clear and visible results.

A war against “ideological terrorism” is not that. “War on Islamic terrorism” is a war against both an ideology and a means of action. It is something quite different than a typical war. There is no territory to conquer or hold, no enemy unit to destroy or capture, and no international convention to sign a peace treaty, an armistice, or accept the enemy’s capitulation. Naturally, victory does not always take the same form, and will vary depending on the type of conflict one wages and the sought political goals. The problem with a war on ideological terrorism is that there is no state, armed group, territory, or material target that is defined as the enemy. Terrorism and ideology are the enemy. The enemy is then something immaterial, and the very fact it is immaterial makes it, by nature, literally indestructible.

Of course, it does not mean that ideological terrorism cannot be “defeated.” It can, but not in the way that most people might expect it to be. In most people’s minds, “defeat” might imply a decisive and permanent state of affair. Radical Islamic terrorism cannot be defeated that way, even with all the good will and best resources in the world: an idea or ideology cannot be wiped out from humankind, and will always be prone to resurgence, one way or another, possibly in a new form. For instance, Nazism was without a doubt “defeated” in 1945, but was not eradicated from humankind. Importantly, even then, the Allied powers had not declared war on Nazism, but on Nazi Germany – a clearly identifiable, material and hence defeatable enemy – whose defeat enabled the downfall of Nazism. Yet, neo-Nazi groups do exist 75 years later; Nazism was defeated, but is not dead, for an ideology is by essence immortal.

The idea of a war on terrorism is similar to a war on poverty, diseases, communism or capitalism, to only name a few examples. The target is something that cannot be clearly defined or destroyed, because its very nature makes that impossible. Poverty and diseases can be dramatically reduced and prevented; communism and capitalism can be banned. But it will require a constant control and permanent investment.

War on ideological terrorism, despite its name, is not an actual war, but a policy. Consequently, the whole idea of victory needs to be adapted to such a policy, for it cannot be the same type of victory showcased in either regular or irregular wars. Here, “victory” would be the lasting and dramatic reduction of (radical Islamic) terrorist acts on the French domestic territory, but not only. That would arguably be the easy part, and would not address the roots of radical Islamic terrorism. A true victory against this ideology and tactic would imply a reconciliation between Islam, the French Republican principle of laïcité (secularism), and non-Muslim French citizens; demonstrating that the French Republic takes care of its Muslim citizens and does not marginalize them; and that even the most hardcore Muslim worshippers feel comfortable living in France and willfully respect the French Republican principles and values, among other things. In short, objectives which can only be achieved through long and sustained efforts, which imply not only security measures but also, and most importantly, socio-economic and educational efforts.

Politicians and decision-makers should know what they are getting into when they use the word “war,” appreciate its implications, and avoid using it to qualify an anti-terror policy, for purposes of practicality and realism. It is not just a matter of semantics. Coining the current French security situation as a war might have a negative impact in the long term. Declaring a state, country, or nation at war is a powerful statement which may lead to a “rally around the flag” effect and justify the use of extraordinary means and resources. However, these effects are only valid in the short to middle terms. A war on ideological terrorism would necessarily be fastidious and extremely long, and being at war implies being able to win it. Yet, when the enemy is both an ideology and a means of action, victory could very well not be clearly visible before a (very) long time.



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