France Church Attack: The ISIS Brand Is Failing at Home but Thriving in Europe

Disgruntled young Muslims deciding to kill on their own accord have been hard to stop. But Israel has some tricks up its sleeve, tricks that Europe would be wise to adopt.

Police officers stand in front of a building during a search operation in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, Normandy, France, following an attack on a church that left a priest dead, Tuesday, July 26, 2016.
Francois Mori / AP

First they came for the journalists at Charlie Hebdo. Then they came for the Jews at the kosher grocery store. Then for the hipsters at the Bataclan Theater in Paris and the vacationers on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, and on Tuesday morning for the priest in a Catholic church in Normandy.

It’s clear by now that in the wave of Islamist terror attacks taking place in France, Belgium and most recently in Germany over the last 18 months any target is fair game. Putting police and soldiers outside the offices of newspapers that offended Islamic sensibilities and every synagogue and Jewish school and football stadiums during the Euro 2016 tournament just made the attackers go elsewhere.

The temporary success in arresting most of the members of the ISIS cell that carried out the Bataclan and Brussels attacks (many of them had already died as suicide bombers anyway), has given France only a short respite, now that the freelancers are using knives and heavy trucks to strike. ISIS is being slowly pushed back in its strongholds in Syria and Iraq, but it is like a company whose brand is struggling in its home turf but is still wildly successful overseas. That is what ISIS now is, a brand. A brand that any disgruntled and mentally-disturbed individual can purchase as a local franchise, by pledging allegiance over the telephone or the internet, just before carrying out the murder.

The murder of 85-year-old Father Jacques Hamel, as he knelt in his church in Saint-tienne-du-Rouvray, near Rouen, by two French-born Islamists, who then went on to preach in Arabic from the altar, before being shot dead by French counter-terror police officers, may have all the outward signs of a religious war, but it is no different than the murder of atheist cartoonists, Jewish shoppers and men and women of all faiths, including Muslims in Paris and Nice. Branding it as a religious war puts all the millions of Muslims in France, and throughout Europe, the overwhelming massive majority of whom are against all such murders, on the enemy's side. It will do nothing to solve Europe’s serious challenge and would be counter-productive to crucial intelligence work that needs to be done.

ISIS has succeeded in creating a brand which allows  frustrated young men and women, many of whom are suffering from mental illness, who have usually lead short and inadequate lives of violence and petty crime, to elevate their status to “soldier of the Caliphate” in one act of suicidal murder. This is of course an internal issue for Muslims, who are the great majority of ISIS’s victims, but for the West it is a security challenge, not a religious one.

On a professional level, this is similar to the challenge Israel has been facing during the past year, in which nearly all the young Palestinians carrying out attacks were acting on their own accord. According to Israeli intelligence officers, during the three months from October 2015 to January 2016, at least 40 percent of Palestinian attacks were not motivated by nationalistic or religious motivations but rather by mental illness or family-related issues that drove them to "suicide by IDF."

The only method that has thus far proven relatively efficient is the combination of psychology and data-mining used to build profiles of typical attackers and mine databases and social-media postings for signs of potentially desperate perpetrators, who are undergoing a process of radicalization. They can then be located, warned and when necessary arrested in advance. That is of course much easier to do in the Israeli occupied West Bank than in a large Western democracy, but in the short-term, it is the only way, and some European intelligence agencies are already adopting these methods. The deeper underlying issues of integration, education and tolerance, for both Muslim and European societies, will take decades to deal with.

There is some grim irony in the identity of the latest victim – a Catholic priest. In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January 2015, Pope Francis placed part of the blame on the journalists who had regularly mocked all religious faiths, including the Prophet Mohammed. Then Francis partially excused violence pointing to his aide saying "If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others." How will the pope explain away the murder of Father Hamel? Who did he provoke?

Pope Francis will visit Poland on Wednesday, in tribute to his predecessor John Paul II. As a young priest and then as pope, Pope John Paul staunchly opposed the two evil ideologies of his generation, Nazism and Communism, and saw both of them discredited and dismantled. His successor Pope Francis is popular with liberals for his homilies against the evils of capitalism and urbanization, but just like the West’s political leaders, he has failed so far to articulate a response to the murderous ideologies of the 21st Century.