Hebdo attack could spur military response. To what end?
French President Francois Hollande was in little doubt about the need for a revised military policy.
"The exceptional situation that we are in must lead us to revise our rhythm for reducing personnel," he said on 14 January, referring to military cuts that were planned before the Charlie Hebdo attack, which al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) took responsibility for earlier.
In a widely disseminated video, Nasser bin Ali al-Ansi, one of AQAP’s commanders, not only declared support for Said
|A re-declaration of "war" may have negative regional as well as domestic consequences.|
and Cherif Kouachi, the alleged perpetrators of the terrorist attack, but also asserted that AQAP leadership had selected the target, planned and funded the operation, and chosen the operatives. In reaction, French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, told parliamentarians that France was at "war against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islamism."
The words turned into action. The French Navy's nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle is deploying with its battle group to the Gulf region, probably to contribute to the US-led coalition air strikes against the “Islamic State” (IS) group.
So, will the Charlie Hebdo attack lead France to escalate its war efforts? And how will that impact the regional and domestic environments?
A military response?
In the last fourteen years, France has moved in the direction of using military force, both against selected armed Islamist movements as well as repressive dictatorships in the Middle East.
Regarding the former, France participated in NATO operations in Afghanistan against al-Qaeda and the Taliban as early as October 2001. In 2013, France was at war with armed Islamists in Northern Mali, an offensive that involved around 4,600 soldiers inside Mali and 500 more troops supporting them from elsewhere. And last year, France joined the US-led military engagement against IS in Iraq.
Earlier this January, France declared that its troops south of Libya are ready to strike armed Islamists crossing the border. And to do that, France is setting up a military base in northern Niger, 100 kilometres from the Libya’s southern borders. Overall, currently, French troops are already engaged in fighting jihadist forces in at least two countries – Iraq and Mali – with the potential of adding another three to the list: Syria, Libya and Yemen – where AQAP is primarily based. So, what is next?
A military escalation could mean initiating operations in Yemen. But a full invasion is highly unlikely, and if it did happen it could be disastrous. French surgical drone-strikes and intensive intelligence cooperation in Yemen is perhaps more likely, although the US is already doing that. US drone strikes have already killed several AQAP figures, including American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who apparently financed Cherif Kouchi and have possibly met with the his elder brother Said in 2011.
All (French) politics is local?
Domestically, France has deployed more than 10,000 troops across the country to protect public spaces and sensitive sites including schools, synagogues and mosques. France is to create 2,680 new jobs and boost spending by US$495 million to bolster counter-terrorism efforts. Around 3,000 people are currently requiring surveillance, according to French authorities.
But what do such military and security policies mean for the French Republic and what it represents? The Charlie Hebdo attacks and the reactions in their aftermath have evoked the days following the 11 September attacks, despite the major differences in their nature (air-borne foreigners versus local gunmen), number of victims (2,977 versus 17) etc. A re-declaration of "war" in response to a vicious and brazen, but still quite limited, attack perpetrated by three French citizens may have negative regional as well as domestic consequences.
The relative social cohesion reflected in the “unity” marches, the maturity and sophistication of the French socialist government shown in the aftermath of the attacks, and even the unexpected “all is forgiven” message printed a million times on the cover of Charlie Hebdo’s first issue after the attacks, may help contain the negative implications of further social polarisation, rise of Islamophobia, and recruitment for violent extremists on basis of a “colonial-crusaders versus Islam” narrative. But this does not mean that these implications will not develop and that military engagement will not help them to.
In that regards, the French government is in an extremely difficult situation, despite the rise of President Hollande’s popularity. The more the country that gave birth to the revolutionary slogans of liberty, equality and fraternity struggles to live up to them domestically, the more sellable is the IS and other extremist narratives in France and elsewhere.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.