France and ISIS: Moving Forward

By: Alicia Chavy, Columnist

Photo by: Reuters

Between 2015 and 2017, France has experienced an array of devastating terrorist attacks carried out by Islamic State (IS) fighters or supporters. The November 2015 attack executed by eight IS militants in Paris that left 130 dead was a watershed event for France’s counterterrorism policies. The country realized it had become a breeding ground not only for foreign fighters but also for innovative and adaptive jihadi cells. In view of these changing threat dynamics, France would be best served by a counterterrorism strategy based on expanding the newly codified domestic anti-terror measures and current military operations against IS. Specifically, the French government should bolder countering violent extremism (CVE) efforts, law enforcement capabilities, and intelligence and covert operations. A sustained commitment to such efforts can provide the tools necessary for the French government to confront a protracted confrontation with IS and address the deeply rooted domestic issues of homegrown terrorism and radicalization.

Since 2011, events in the Middle East have boosted jihadist ideology, magnifying its appeal for many Western Muslims and inspiring operations across the globe. Indeed, the escalation of the civil war in Syria, the IS’s military successes, and the organization’s declaration of a caliphate in July 2014 animated the jihadist cause worldwide. While it is difficult to know with certainty how many foreign fighters have joined Islamic State and other terrorist groups in the region, the French government estimated that about 1,400 residents and nationals left France in 2015 alone.[i][ii] Since 2015, IS supporters unable to join the group in either Iraq or Syria began to plot attacks against a wide range of targets in France, such as transportation hubs, religious festivities, and places of worship.[iii]

In response to staggering attacks in 2015, then-President Francois Hollande declared a state of emergency, allowing the French police to execute house raids and arrest suspects with limited judicial oversight.[iv] The sustained terrorist threats led the French President to continually extend the state of emergency. Additionally, following IS’s claim of responsibility for the attacks, France launched airstrikes in Syria and deployed the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle to the eastern Mediterranean.[v] Since October 2016, France has conducted 844 strikes against IS targets in Iraq and 32 in Syria, and deployed 1,700 troops to assist the US-led coalition against IS, most of whom work as advisers and trainers to local forces in Iraq and Syria.[vi]

In October 2017, France ended its two-year-long state of emergency and passed an anti-terror law allowing some of the emergency measures to remain in place. The new law enhances the government’s counterterrorism capabilities, funding, and operational scope, as it grants permanent powers to French authorities to search homes, set up large security perimeters in case of an identified threat, restrict the movements of suspected extremists, conduct wiretapping, and identity checks—all without a court order.[vii] Yet, France’s current counterterrorism measures are no match for the evolving terrorist threat, including the growing number of foreign fighters returning to France, lone wolf attacks, and homegrown radicalization. Currently, approximately 15,000 suspected radical Islamists are on French authorities’ watchlist, about 4,000 of whom are deemed at high risk of committing an attack.[viii] IS’s recent military defeats and territorial losses in Iraq and Syria will likely result in hundreds of returning jihadi militants, exacerbating the existing jihadist threat within France. Some returnees have been detained in the past and placed under security surveillance. French policy and legal framework on how to treat returning foreign fighters is well defined, as special magistrates responsible for investigating terrorism-related crimes and conspiracies have broad mandate allowing them to order wiretaps, issue warrants and subpoenas, order the detention of suspects for days without charge, and extend suspects’ internment for years pending completion of an investigation.[ix] The French government thus established a unique legal framework that allows the special magistrates to freeze terrorist-related assets and potentially revoke French citizenship after a terrorist conviction.[x]

The additional operational tools granted to the police and French authorities are still weak when faced with the terrorist’s adaptable, innovative, and sophisticated capabilities, and resources remain scarce. In fact, self-radicalized individuals have been able to exploit France’s already overtaxed security and law enforcement agencies to execute both large, pre-planned attacks and simpler, but still effective, operations. For example, the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack, the November 2015 coordinate assaults, and the 2016 Nice attack underscore an evolution in terrorist techniques and expansion of targets, as militants conduct both low and high complexity attacks with tactics including urban siege, mobile shooting, and car-ramming.[xi] Thus, France must dedicate additional resources to augment its newly codified anti-terror law and current military operations against IS.

The heavy-handed response of the anti-terror law has proven to have some counterproductive effects, especially with regards to countering radicalization. There has been, in fact, a proliferation of radicalization in France. The profile of prospective terrorists and radicalized individuals is increasingly diverse, posing a significant challenge for intelligence and counterterrorism services. The government should launch preventive measures to “stop the radicalization of extremists in the early stages by focusing on improving relations between police forces and marginalized French Muslims.”[xii] Since 2015, France has implemented a handful of soft measures targeting radicalization and mobilization to violence. It also created a national center for assistance and prevention, established hotlines, and launched counter-radicalization websites. In September 2016, the government opened 12 deradicalization centers near Paris.[xiii] With this foundation, there are additional softer counterterrorism measures that can enhance France’s current CVE efforts. These include “individual interventions, dialogues and workshops with Muslim communities, vocational training, counseling and exit programs.”[xiv] The government should attempt to create a sense of belonging and an inclusive identity for the Muslim community in France, which has been missing to date.

Additionally, France does not have an autonomous signal intelligence (SIGINT) agency. Intelligence and counterterrorism services have to constantly play catch-up to keep pace with both technological evolutions and terrorist innovation. New surveillance measures could “help narrow the gap between terrorist communications and state interception capabilities.”[xv] France should increase its funding and investment in new technology, surveillance, and an autonomous SIGINT agency. This would help the country exploit aerial and electronic surveillance and remote imaging, increasing the country’s knowledge of activity in IS-controlled territories, which could also be employed to advance CVE efforts.[xvi]






[i] Lorenzo Vidino and Seamus Hughes, “ISIS in America, From Retweets to Raqqa,” December 2015, 14.

[ii] “New counterterrorism resources in France due to strengthen security and intelligence capacity, but not in short term,” Janes by IHS Markit, January 22, 2015,

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] David Kilcullen, Blood Year:Tthe Unraveling of Western Counterterrorism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 219.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Tom O’Connor, “France helps Iraqi military find, kill French citizens who joined ISIS, report says,” Newsweek, May 30, 2017,

[vii] Christian Hartmann, “Two Years after the Paris attacks, France ends state of emergency,” Reuters, November 1, 2017.

[viii] Jack Moore, “French Minister: hundreds of Jihadis have returned from Iraq and Syria,” Newsweek, August 6, 2017.

[ix] Gary J. Schmitt, Rafael L. Bardaji, Ignacio Cosido, Eric Gujer, and Tom Parker, “Safety, Liberty and Islamist Terrorism: American and European Approaches to Domestic Counterterrorism,” American Enterprise Institute, August 16, 2010, 36; Moore, “French Minister: hundreds of Jihadis have returned from Iraq and Syria”; The Local, “France to halve the number of suspects under house arrest as part of new anti-terror law,” November 2, 2017.

[x] Schmitt, et al., “Safety, Liberty and Islamist Terrorism,” 44.

[xi] Kilcullen, Blood Year, 121.

[xii] Alicia Chavy, “The Implication of France’s New Anti-Terror Law,” Georgetown Security Studies Review, November 21, 2017,

[xiii] “France: Extremism & Counter-Extremism,” Counter Extremism Project,

[xiv] Dorle Hellmuth, “Countering Jihadi Terrorists and Radicals the French Way,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 38, no. 12 (2015): 979-997.

[xv] “New Counterterrorism resources in France,” Janes by IHS Markit.

[xvi] Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger, ISIS: The State of Terror (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015), 251.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.