Paris terrorist attacks underline the need to root out the causes that radicalise youth
Zhou Zunyou says the atrocities highlight the problem of foreign terrorist fighters in our midst, and any lasting solution must include efforts to fully integrate at-risk communities into society
Shortly after the terrorist attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead, French President François Hollande blamed Islamic State for the carnage. The group in turn claimed responsibility for the attacks as retribution for France’s involvement in the air strikes on IS militants in Syria and Iraq.
So far, four of the seven suicide attackers have been identified as French nationals. Three of the four are believed to have spent time in Syria and Iraq. The Paris attacks heighten French concerns about the grave threat posed by radicalised French Muslims who have returned home after receiving terrorist training abroad.
The slaughter in Paris caused shock, but not surprise. In January, terrorists targeted the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish grocery store; two of the three perpetrators were returning fighters with ties to al-Qaeda and IS.
France is particularly vulnerable to terrorist activities carried out by its own citizens; as home to Europe’s largest Muslim population, numbering some five million, it has the biggest contingent of European fighters in the Syria and Iraq conflict zone. According to French authorities’ most recent estimates, as many as 2,000 French nationals have been implicated in jihadist networks. Moreover, 571 French citizens are fighting for Islamic State or other terrorist groups, 141 have died there, and 246 have returned home.
The bloodbath in Paris challenged the effectiveness of the French counterterrorism apparatus, which has moved aggressively, especially in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, to use its broad powers to seize passports of individuals suspected of planning terrorism-related travel to the Middle East.
France is not the only country with “foreign terrorist fighters”, that is, those lured to travel overseas to terrorist safe havens for the purpose of committing terrorist acts or receiving training. Rather, the whole world is on full alert for the phenomenon. Since 2011, an increasing number of radicalised young Muslims from many countries have been flocking to Syria and Iraq. Despite strenuous international efforts, the trend continues. According to a recent US congressional report, by September, more than 25,000 militants from over 100 countries had become foreign fighters with Islamic State and other Islamist groups.
In the wake of the Paris bloodshed, President Xi Jinping (習近平) immediately condemned the barbaric action. China’s police chief Guo Shengkun (郭聲琨) also ordered the country’s counterterrorism agencies to boost preparedness against potential terrorist violence. The vigilance is necessary, given that China is in Islamic State’s cross hairs. In July 2014, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called on his followers to mount revenge attacks on China and other countries. Meanwhile, Islamic State released a map of territories it planned to occupy, which appeared to include a large portion of Xinjiang (新疆), home of Uygur Muslims.
Like France, China is concerned about its own citizens travelling abroad for training. According to Chinese authorities, at least 300 Uygur extremists have been fighting alongside Islamic State and some have returned home to plan attacks.
Following the Kunming (昆明) massacre in March 2014, Beijing waged a campaign to block the flow of radicalised Uygurs to Turkey and IS-controlled areas. The Chinese efforts attracted strong international criticism in July, when Thailand repatriated, on China’s request, more than 100 Uygur fugitives. However, in August, a huge bomb explosion at Bangkok’s popular Erawan Shrine left 20 people dead. Thai police later confirmed that Chinese Uygurs had been involved.
One of the hard lessons learned from the Paris attacks is that the international community must take the problem of foreign terrorist fighters seriously. To address this growing threat, governments have to put in place both short- and long-term policies. Even as travel restrictions are imposed on potential fighters, the long-term aim must be to integrate people fully into society to prevent them from being radicalised and recruited in the first place.
Dr Zhou Zunyou is head of the China section at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law, and the author of Balancing Security and Liberty: Counter-Terrorism Legislation in Germany and China