French Prime Minister Manuel Valls’ declaration that France is at war “against terrorism, against jihadism, (and) against radical Islam” will not have much practical impact on the battle against extremist ideologies.
The distinguishing feature of “war” is the legal use of lethal force against an identifiable enemy. In this respect, France has been on a “war” footing along with the United States on and off over the past 13½ years. As early as October 2001, France participated in NATO operations in Afghanistan against al Qaeda and the Taliban. In 2013, France launched a military operation in Mali against an al Qaeda affiliate that had overtaken large swaths of the country. And, in 2014, France joined the U.S.-led coalition’s military engagement against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
In light of this, it is odd that France is declaring “war” in response to a vicious and brazen, but still quite limited, attack perpetrated by three of its citizens, possibly with support from others in and outside the country.
The key steps France needs to take to address the current threat have everything to do with expanding domestic counterterrorism criminal authorities and little to do with the tools of war.
First, France should revise its laws to clarify that any action taken to support known foreign terrorist organizations — including fighting or training with them — is a crime punishable by a lengthy period of incarceration. In the United States, our “material support for terrorism” law has been an effective tool for incapacitating potential terrorists. The law is only triggered by specific actions taken in furtherance of terrorist organizations, so, if applied properly, it does not violate civil liberties by punishing people for their ideas.
Expansion of the criminal laws in this way will automatically expand the scope of permissible surveillance against individuals with terrorist connections. When this surveillance uncovers evidence that individuals have taken concrete steps to advance terrorist organizations, France must demonstrate a greater willingness to arrest and prosecute them. A tougher approach to criminal law enforcement will incapacitate some individuals, send a message that these activities will not be tolerated, and, hopefully, deter others from heading down this path. This is the only way to alleviate the immediate threat France is facing from homegrown terrorism and returning foreign fighters.
It is, of course, impossible for France and its allies to arrest their way out of this problem. The biggest challenge facing the community of nations aligned against extremism is to develop a set of policies to reduce the number of individuals attracted to al Qaeda’s noxious ideology. Again, the concept of “war” has nothing to contribute to this task.
While there is always a demand from the public that the government must “do something” to address security threats, preventing radicalization is not primarily a job for Western governments. Rather, it is a task that must be taken on by Muslim majority nations, Muslim civic and religious leaders, and Muslims communities around the globe (with support from the West behind the scenes). We took a strong step toward recognizing the need for Muslim leadership on this issue by demanding the participation of Muslim nations in the battle against ISIS. But much remains to be done.
A concerted, global counter-radicalization effort is long overdue. But we need to recognize that no level of funding or programming will stem the creation of more Kourachi brothers in the absence of reduced violent conflict in the Middle East (including between Israelis and Palestinians), improved governance in the region, increased economic opportunity for isolated Muslims in the West and diminished anti-Islamic sentiment. This is a tall order. But if these topics are not on our post-Paris counterterrorism agenda, then our leaders are just blowing smoke.
David H. Schanzer is the director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security and a professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.