To Stop the Next Attack, France Has to Answer Some Tough Questions

France is in a more difficult position with regards to terrorism compared with other European nations. Now they'll have to find a way to crack down on jihadists without further alienating Muslim population.

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Police patrol at the Eiffel Tower in Paris, which was closed following the previous day's terror attacks, November 14, 2015.
Police patrol at the Eiffel Tower in Paris, which was closed following the previous day's terror attacks, November 14, 2015.Credit: AFP

PARIS - In most parts of Paris on Saturday, including the airports and train stations, you could not see any increase in the number of security forces. Just a few hours after the series of terror attacks which killed at least 129 people, the city continued to function, almost normally. Cultural and some large shopping centers remained closed, and the open markets on city streets were not held on this Saturday, as usual.  But traffic flowed normally, and the cafes and restaurants were full as usual.

Even around the synagogues, which in the months since the previous wave of terror attacks in January have become fortresses, one couldn’t see any special security - a result of the confusion in which the authorities assumed that the Jewish worshippers would not come to synagogue because of the emergency situation. But those Jews who keep the Sabbath and so did not watch television on Friday night were completely unaware that they weren't supposed to gather and came to the morning services as they usually do, more evidence that except for the declaration of a curfew, it is not possible to stop life in a lively city with millions of residents, and certainly not to guard every potential target for a terrorist attack.

It seems the next terrorist attack in France, or in another European city, can only be prevented through intelligence and early detection. The minute the attackers are already ensconced in the target city with their weapons and explosives, it is almost impossible to stop them.

Paris has already seen twice this year how it is not possible to close the big city off from terror, like other cities around the world - Ankara two months ago with e serious terror attack during the election rally for the Kurdish party; Boston during its marathon two years ago; Mumbai in the combined attack in 2008, maybe the incident most similar to what happened on Friday night in Paris; London in 2005 and Madrid a year earlier, in which the public transportation systems became a target for mass terror attacks. 

But France is at a more difficult position than others: The combination of open borders with other European nations, the tight coordination between hundreds, and possibly thousands of French and Belgian jihadists coming back from Syria with expertise and aspirations of martyrdom and a continued problem of French Muslim youth whose feelings of ostracization make them susceptible to radicalization. The new laws, additional resources and cooperation between European intelligence services weren't enough to stop the Paris attacks, where at least one of the terrorists was a French national, whose ties to jihadists were known to security services.  

The French insist their efforts weren't a complete failure. Three suicide bombers arrived at a soccer stadium packed with spectators, including President Francois Hollande, and security stopped them at the entrance. They blew themselves up outside, killing only one civilian. Inside, Hollande was informed within minutes and was quickly secured back in his office at the Elyse, where he declared a state of emergency in less than an hour and called up 1,500 troops to reinforce security around key points in the capital. However, that doesn't change the fact that time after time, since the Toulouse attacks nearly four years ago, known extremists slip through the net and carry out attacks.   

The French are in an unenviable position. They're facing a series of tough challenges: Stepping up surveillance on citizens without harming individual rights; cracking down on jihadists without estranging the Muslim population any further; improving the cooperation between European nations at a time when the EU's unity is cracking and its popularity among voters has hit a nadir; whether to punish hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees escaping Assad and ISIS just because of the chance a handful of terrorists are among them; and whether to give up the principle of open borders at the base of the EU's vision. There are no easy answers, but the solution to these problems may contain the chance to prevent the next attack.