Islamic Terrorism in France. An Analysis

Academic Paper, 2019

43 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Content


Introduction to the topic and the research question

Major attacks

Definition of (Islamic) terrorism

Islamism in France

Main analysis and discussion
1. Proclamation of the "caliphate”
2. Refugee crisis
The perpetrators and the French population analysis
Colonial History and immigration

Purpose of the Islamists attacks in France
1. Frances colonial history
2. French foreign policy: military interventions
Domestic French politics: la laïcité
Right wing and anti-islamic tendencies
French internal security services and the prisons for Islamists
Integration of Muslims




Other resources


Terrorist incidents in France, 21 century

Involvement of France in international wars


This paper is analyzing the terrorist's attacks of France since the proclamation of the caliphate and the refugee crisis in 2014. Focusing on the perpetuators and their reasons for the attacks in France - mainly on symbols of the French culture, like the national day, freedom of religion, freedom of speech as well as on state officials. The backgrounds of the attackers play an important role as well as the long-lasting and difficult relationship between France and the Muslim world mainly throughout their colonial history, their current interventions in wars as well as their inner state policies.

„And kill them wherever you overtake them and expel them from wherever they have expelled you, and fitnah is worse than killing. And do not fight them at al-Masjid al- îaram until they fight you there. But if they fight you, then kill them. Such is the recompense of the disbelievers.“

- Surah 2 verse 191 Quran - often quoted in assertion letters by Islamist assassins.

Introduction to the topic and the research question

Terrorism is one of the most important issues facing the EU at the moment.1 Almost every country has had major attacks by terrorist. In comparison to the last century these have not been by political separatists but were mostly motivated by Islamic ideologies. In this decade there has been an increase in the frequency of Islamic terrorist attacks in Europe. According to surveys about the global trends in terrorism and the Global Attack Index by IHS Jane there were the most Islamic attacks in the EU in 2015/ 16 in the United Kingdom (151 and 105),2 second most in Germany (67 and 65), followed by France with 51 and 40.3

In France the targets of the attacks were journalists, the Jewish community, Parisian partygoers, and people celebrating the Bastille Day - all in all they were symbols of French identity and lifestyle. French citizens are today over proportionally afraid of terrorism in comparison to other EU states.4 This was enforced by the state of emergency in France since November 2015 till October 2017.5 The fear of Islamism is also represented by the strong difference of the real number of Muslims in comparison to the perceived one.6 The attacks in France were not just high in terms of death toll but also by the psychological effects they had on the population.7 Furthermore do these attacks effect all countries and make them fear and change their policies towards more anti-terrorism-politics.

In this paper I want to find out whether France is a special target of Islamist terror attacks and what the purpose of the terrorists in France is.

To analyze this, I will look into the history of France, especially at the years and attacks after 2014 - the year were Abu Bakr al Baghdadi announced the caliphate and when the refugee crisis in Europe started.

Major attacks

To start one has to look first at the terror attacks en detail. Major ones were:

- In January 2015 were there was a mass shooting at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo office in Paris. It was carried out by two brothers, Islamist gunmen who identified themselves as belonging to Al-Qaeda in Yemen. At the same time, a third Islamist gunman and friend of the brothers, was responsible for two shootings and a hostage taking at a kosher supermarket (btw. not the only target connected to Jews). They had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.8
- Later this year, in November 2015, there were multiple shootings and grenade attacks - again in Paris: It was the deadliest terrorist attack in French history: the locations targeted were a music venue, the Stade de France (sports stadium) and several bars and restaurants. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks and President Hollande named the Paris attacks an "act of war"9.
- One year later in July 2016, a cargo truck was driven into a crowd, celebrating on Bastille Day on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice.
- In March 2018, the owner of a vehicle was shot in Carcassonne and later out of this car the terrorist shot a group of police officers in Trèbes. After that he attacked a supermarket, killed three people and injured several others.
- In December 2018, a gunman opened fire just outside the Christmas Market of Strasbourg, whereby five people were killed and eleven injured.
- This year, in March 2019 two guards of the prison of Condé-sur-Sarthe penitentiary were stabbed. The French Interior Minister described also this attack as a “terrorist incident”.

These are only some symbolizing attacks, showing which kind of targets the perpetuators chose: By killing journalists the freedom of speech is attacked; a Jewish supermarket and the Christmas Market symbolize the freedom of religious choice as well as French traditions; the music venue, as well as the sports gathering is against the other freedoms of French lifestyle and the Bastille Day is the national day of France. Killing police men and prison guards can be seen as an act of hatred against the official state forces.

In total were there since 2014 32 attacks, whereby all except for two (one was anti-Semitic, one was a Greek anarchist) were motivated by Islamism.10

In comparison to the rest of the world, Western Europe has just a little attacks and terrorism11 but still 184 deaths by terror attacks in one year (2017) are a lot for democratic countries which seem to be in order.12

Definition of (Islamic) terrorism

Terror acts are intended to cause death or serious body injury with the purpose of intimidation to the population or the government.13 „Terrorism is often interpreted as a form of political communication, violence intended to send a message to a watching audience. It is a form of coercion that is available to weak actors“,14 mostly motivated politically, religiously or connected to any kind of ideology.15

This paper deals exclusively with terrorist attacks with an Islam connected background. The term "Islamism" refers to political- religious extremism of the (political) Islam. Relying on Islam, Islamism rejects secularism, the rule of law and democracy.16 Likewise, the universal validity of human rights is negated or at least relativized. Islamism is based on the conviction that Islam is not only a personal, private matter as a religion, but also determines or at least partially regulates social life and political order. Islamism postulates the existence of a God­given and therefore "true" and absolute order that stands above the orders made by man.17 Another essential ideological element of Islamism is also anti-Semitism.18 The followers of this extreme form of manifestation of Islam aspire to the (worldwide) caliphate (which would abolish the separation of secular and religious rule), which is incompatible with liberal democratic order.

The Islamic interpretation of Islam contradicts with the major principles of France like the separation of state and religion, freedom of expression and universal equality.

Islamic terrorists base their views and violent acts on specific interpretations of the Koran to justify mass killings, genocide, child abuse and slavery.19 They commit terror attacks “out of a mind-set that rejects democracy on religious grounds and uses the historical comparison with the crusades of the Middle Ages to describe current situations.“20 Central to the ideology of Islamist terrorist groups and organizations is the uncompromising warlike interpretation of the term so-called jihad, which is understood as an Islamic legitimated military struggle to expand and defend Islam. In addition, there is an Islamist division of the world into "good" and "evil", which leads to simplified enemy images - first and foremost are the Western countries, particularly the United States of America, as well as Israel and the Jews in general.21

Islamism in France

To understand the reasons for Islamism in France one has to look at the relationship between France and the Muslim World.

Already long before the Islamist ideological attacks of recent times, France has often been the victim of scandalous attacks caused by the peculiarities of its colonial rule over Muslim societies. Religious extremism occurred in the 1980s due to French involvement in the Lebanese civil war. In the 1990s, there was a series of attacks on French soil were executed by the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria (GIA) as an act of revenge for the French colonial politics.

Main analysis and discussion

This essay will focus on the time after 2014. There are two reasons for that:

1. Proclamation of the "caliphate”

On the 29th of June 2014 the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called out the caliphate. The so-called Islamic State “claimed that all Muslims were under a religious obligation to join (...) declared that the only excuse for Muslims to not join the group in territories under its control was to perpetrate terrorist attacks in their current place of residence.”22 He reinforced that again in 2017 and in spring 2019, at the beginning of the Ramadan.

Beside others, the founding member of the IS, Abu-Muhammad al-Adnani calls all the believers to fight for the caliphate, talks about the air strikes of the "Crusaders" and urges the followers in the western countries, no longer to travel to the caliphate to fight there, but directly attack their western home countries. („One reason that France is a particular target is down to a specific decision by the Islamic State to target it. In September 2014, shortly after the beginning of airstrikes by a US-led coalition which includes France, the chief spokesman for Isis al- Adnani, singled out the “spiteful French” among a list of enemies in a speech calling for the group's sympathizers to launch attacks across the west.“23 )

One reason for following this call to carry out attacks in Europe is based on the Quranic verse "obey God and the Prophet and those of you who have power."24 From this passage, the unconditional submission not only under God's will but also under de facto rulers (such as al- Baghdadi and al-Adnani) is derived. One has to obey therefor also the worldly Muslim rulers (emirs, caliphs or sultans), as they are chosen by God. The exercise of power as well as the submission under it are thus religious duties, through which man comes closer to God.25

Since the secular leadership has claimed these attacks as God's will, this explains partly why the number of terrorist attacks worldwide has increased significantly since the founding of the Islamic State.

2. Refugee crisis

Another reason why 2014/15 was a changing point in Europe, was the refugee crisis, which came along with the raise of power as well as territory of the Islamic State. According to Europol's annual report released in 2017, the Islamic State exploited the flow of refugees and migrants to commit acts of terrorism, which was a feature of the 2015 Paris attacks. In 2016 attack planning against Western countries took place in Syria and Iraq. Groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIL had the intent and capabilities to mount mass casualty attacks with volunteers.26

The perpetrators and the French population analysis

In the following the perpetuators of the terror attacks in France will be analyzed. A lot of them were French but born into migrant families or even born somewhere else (mainly from former French colonies and the Maghreb).27

For further analysis one has to have a closer look into the characteristics of Frances population. Because the perpetuators were Muslims it is interesting to find out how many Muslims there are in France. Because of a law from 1872 it is difficult to analysis the demographics of France.28 It prohibits the conduction of census by making any official distinction between its citizens in terms of race or religious beliefs. That's why it is difficult to determine exactly how the population looks like.29

In 2016, France (and Germany) have had the highest numbers of Muslims in Europe.30 Immigration to France has been steadily augmented in recent years. It has had a lasting impact on the composition of the population. Today, around 13.1 million people with immigration background live in France. That is about 20 percent of the total population.31 Especially immigrants from the former French colonies in the north of the African continent are represented - Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.32

France received more than half a million Muslim migrants - predominantly regular migrants - between mid-2010 and mid-2016.33 From all of these Muslims the EU anti-terror coordinator estimated in April 2018 there to be 50.000 radicalized living in Europe.34 A 2017 Pew Research report documents Muslim population at 5.720000 or 8.8% of the total population.35

Colonial History and immigration

The origin of the big Muslim community in France lays in its colonial history. France has concentrated its colonial policies since 1830 on Africa, beginning with the Maghreb coastline until it took over the entire Sahara, as well as most of West and Central Africa. Since much of the population in the conquered territories was Muslim, from the 1890 France had been called a puissance musulmane, an imperial power that had its Muslim subjects under its control.36 The Second French Republic under Napoleon III changed a lot in the Maghreb states. For example, in Algeria the demographics (by killing a lot of Algerians)37, the system (by forcing the people to take the French code civil)38 and the ownership of the land (by buying a lot of it). Another project of French colonial policy from the end of the 19th was the mission civilisatrice. The French saw it as the duty of Europe to bring their kind of civilization to the African peoples. People were taught speaking and writing French as well as an education in “good moral standards”.

Granted by the French Union citizenship there were from 1946 on, rights to all inhabitants of the colonies.39

"France is a victim of its own colonialism," says Barbara Zehnpfennig, Professor of Political Theory and History of Ideas at the University of Passau. "In the past, for reasons of population policy, the naturalization of members of the former colonies and their descendants was particularly easy. But since they were not interested in integrating them, ghettos have formed, for example in the banlieues of Paris, where they vegetate in isolation and are socially suspended.“40

Purpose of the Islamists attacks in France

One reason for Islamist terrorists could be revenge for the French policies like the colonial history or its current military interventions.

1. Frances colonial history

It could be revenge for the colonial policies and for what happened in the last two hundred years in the northern African but also the other colonialized, mostly Muslim countries.

„Al-Qaeda had (historically) perceived France to be its principal enemy, largely because of how it props up the anti-Islamist governments of North Africa, notably in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco... As such, Al-Qaeda's strategy was founded on using the rest of Europe as a means of targeting France.“41

2. French foreign policy: military interventions

It could also be a revenge for newer French world policies. For example, for the French involvement in wars. In the last 20 years French military has been involved in several wars. French soldiers have been sent to at least 12 different conflicts. Of these most of them included an Islamic party which the French were fighting against (especially in the last 10 years).42 „ISIS attacks on Western targets cannot be explained as a result of blind aggression, the attempt to sow hatred, the desire to distract oneself from one's own defeats, or the effort to assert a divine state in Europe.”43 Most of these aspects are important, but according to the German Federal Academy for Security Policy the primary reason is different. They say that the IS attacks the West because the West is attacking the IS (the Islamic world).44 “Western countries have been waging war against (the) IS since the summer of 2014, so (the) IS is waging war against the West. However, from the point of view of the IS, this war goes back much further than two years. He fits into the narrative, according to which Christianity waged at least since the Middle Ages war against Islam. The coalition's interventions in Iraq and Syria are, after the crusades, the colonial era, the founding of Israel, the support of various Arab regimes and several wars in the region, the latest wave of attacks by the Crusaders. Thus, the caliphate is still the central project of the IS and its struggle is still focused on preserving or even expanding it. But now he does not have to claim it only against Kurds or Shiites, but - again - against the USA, France or Germany. As long as this state of war persists and (the) Islamic State sees itself from its point of view unjustified attacks, it will therefore try for its part to continue attacks against Western objectives.“45

This thesis is confirmed by data showing that terrorist attacks have been accelerated worldwide since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, by among others the French.46

It is interesting to look at a letter from Osama Bin Laden, the founder of the pan-islamic militant organization Al-Qaeda from November 24, 2002, which revealed reasons for the 9/11 terror attacks (in 2001).47 Analyzing this letter one can find that some of the reasons he names for accusing the USA also work well for blaming France, which has always been an ally of the USA.48

- Among other things Bin Laden blames the USA for attacking (“them”- speaking of all
Arabs/ Muslims) Somalia, in which France was also involved in the mission.49
- He says that the US governments prevent “their” people from establishing the Islamic Shariah, using violence and lies to do so. That is what can also be seen in the military interventions France was involved and where the French military tried to fight the militant
Islamic groups to prevent a stable government which follows law and order (and cooperates with the West). He writes explicitly also about the Iraq war, were France was involved too.
- In general, he points out that he does not want anyone to intervene in “their” politics. There are more reasons he talks about, but which cannot be linked to French politics. Furthermore, France was because of its involvement in Algeria where it tried to stabilize the country against an Islamic regime an enemy of the GIA and the Al Qaeda;50 as well as because it supported “the Jewish aggression against us in Lebanon”.51


1 Cf. Standard Eurobarometer 90 Autumn 2018, QA5. - the most important issue for Europe is according to this survey immigration; QA3a: On average terrorism is mentioned by 8% of Europeans as the most important issue for their country. In France it is the third most given answer with 18%.

2 West Europe incidents by key target country: 2011-2016: England had 559 terror attacks between 2011 and 2016 (that is more than France with 161 incidents).

3 Cf. Jane's Global Attack Index 2018: Although in the Ukraine were 2017/ 2018 much more attacks (3735, 4422) they were not religious/ Islamic but by Donetsk/ Luhansk people (separatists).

- In France in 2017 were 44 and 2018 18 attacks mostly by the terror group of the Islamic State
- In the United Kingdom 2017: 100 and 2018: 70.
- In Germany 2017: 21 and 2018: 19.
- In Spain much less 2017: 6 and 2018: 4.
- Turkey much more (but not EU).
- Greece a lot: 2017: 80 and 2018: 51 - but not IS.

According to the Europol: EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (TE - SAT) statistics about the “Total attacks and arrests by Europol member country in 2014 - 2016” there were between 2014 and 2016 more attacks in the UK (76 in comparison to 23 in France) but much more arrests in France (456 in comparison to 149 in the UK).

Furthermore, almost half of the total number arrests of jihadist attacks took place in France (429 France vs. 718 total (UK 69)) - cf. Jihadists vs. total arrests by affiliation by EU country: 2016; Map of Jihadists arrests by EU country: 2016.

4 Cf. Standard Eurobarometer 90 Autumn 2018, QA3a: On average terrorism is mentioned by 8% of Europeans as the most important issue for their country. In France it is the third most given answer with 18%.

5 This was accompanied by a strong restriction of civil liberties and the entry into force of the law strengthening internal security and the fight against terrorism; cf. French embassy in Berlin.

6 In France are around 8 % of the population muslims, but people perceive this much more (31%) (cf. Duman, 2018; Islam in Europe: perception and reality, Economist, 2016)

7 Cf. Samaan/ Jacobs, 2018, p. 4.

8 Charlie Hebdo is a satirical magazine which had published controversial cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, which were seen as insulting by many Muslims.

9 BBC, 2015.

10 Cf. Jane's Global Attack Index 2018; Europol: EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (TE - SAT), 2018; Global Terrorism in 2017, START; as well as table 1.

11 Cf. Global Terrorism in 2017, START: 3% of the terror attacks in the whole world are in western Europe, 1% in east Europe.

12 Cf. table 1. Of course, it would be interesting to see in if France itself would have to change single policies to be less victim of terrorism. for this a policy comparison (for example of the EU countries) would be necessary. Unfortunately, this would have gone beyond the scope of this work.

13 Cf. Cassese, 2013, p. 745 f.

14 Crenshaw, 2014, p. 557.

15 Cf. Cassese, 2013, p. 748.

16 Islamismus def. by German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution.

17 Cf. German Federal Academy for Security Policy, 2008, p. 7.

18 Ibid.

19 Cf. Botelho (CNN), 2014.

20 EU terrorism situation and trend report (TE-SAT) 2018, p. 64.

21 Cf. German Federal Academy for Security Policy, p. 7.

22 Europol: EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (TE - SAT), 2017, p. 6.

23 The Guardian (Burke), 2016. and cf. Al-Adnani, 2014: “In the Name of Allah the Beneficent the Merciful Indeed Your Lord Is Ever Watchful. (...) If you are not able to find an IED or a bullet, then single out the disbelieving American, Frenchman, or any of their allies. Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him.”

24 Surah 24, verse 59, Quran.

25 Hourani, 1962, p. 3ff.

26 Cf. Europol: EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (TE - SAT), 2017.

27 Mostly connected to Islamism (cf. table 1).

28 Bleich (The Brookings Institution), 2001.

29 Furthermore, in France is no obligation to report the place of residence. Information is in general about the population is only collected every eight to nine years. The last census took place in 2013. Sensitive data for e.g. Religious or ethnic origin may not be recorded, which makes statements about immigration and integration processes difficult. The only exception for this law are for the public institutions like the I Institut national d'études démographiques and the Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques authorized by the Commission nationale de l'informatique et des libertés and the National Council of Statistical Information. Cf. Engler, 2017.

30 Cf. Pew (Hackett) 2017.

31 Cf. Engler, 2017.

32 Due to migration from North African and Middle Eastern countries, France has the largest percentage of Muslims in the Western world; cf. Ined, immigration flows by continent of origin, 2010-2016; Ined, immigrants by country of birth, 2015.

33 Cf. Pew (Hackett) 2017.

34 Cf. Europol: EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (TE - SAT), 2018, p. 4.

35 Cf. Pew (Hackett) 2017.

36 Laurens, 2018.

37 The country was ruled by a civilian government, but Napoleon III. re-established a military government. Between 500,000 and 1,000,000, from approximately 3 million Algerians were killed within the first three decades of the conquest as a result of war, massacres, disease and famine by the French.[43][44]

38 Napoleon wanted Algeria to be as French as possible. He allowed Muslims to serve in the military and civil service on theoretically equal terms and allowed them to migrate to France. In addition, he gave the option of citizenship; however, for Muslims to take this option they had to accept all of the French civil code, including parts governing inheritance and marriage which conflicted with Muslim laws, and they had to reject the competence of religious Sharia courts. This was interpreted by some Muslims as requiring them to give up parts of their religion to obtain citizenship and was resented.

39 With this France had the idea to create social ties and a cooperative elite in their African colonial territories.

40 Jakob, 2017.

41 Gregory, 2002, p. 132.

42 Cf. table 1: mainly fighing against al-Qaeda (in the Islamic Maghreb); Taliban; militant Islamists in Somalia/ the Horn of Africa/ Libya/ Central African Republic; the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad in Mali (not sure how strong their connection to Islamism is/ was); the Islamist group Ansar Dine in Mali; the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant; militant group Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat in Central African Republic.

43 Brüggemann, 2016, p. 3.

44 Cf. German Federal Academy for Security Policy, 2008, p. 7.

45 Brüggemann, 2016, p. 3.

46 Roser; Nagdy; Ritchie, 2018.

47 Bin Laden, 2002.

48 Although not always easily, the French and the US worked (mostly) together in war and against terrorism.

49 Operation Enduring Freedom - Horn of Africa (OEF-HOA).

50 Cf. Foley, 2013, p. 25.

51 Bin Laden, 2002; cf. Lounnas, 2019, p. 5.

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Islamic Terrorism in France. An Analysis
Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya
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islamic, terrorism, france, analysis
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Charlotte Hüser (Author), 2019, Islamic Terrorism in France. An Analysis, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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