Paris (CNSNews.com) – The recent stabbing of two women at a train station in Marseilles and the discovery of a homemade device primed to explode in a Paris neighborhood have added to concerns that France may have become the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s primary target in Europe.
In both cities police arrested suspected terrorists and believe both incidents are linked to ISIS, although investigations continue.
One of those arrested in Paris was named on a government list of people considered potentially dangerous and subject to surveillance by police and intelligence agencies.
Since a self-proclaimed jihadist killed three French soldiers in southern France in 2012, there has been a steady stream of terror attacks and foiled terror plots across the country.
Among the worst were the ISIS attacks in Paris in November 2015 in which 130 people were killed, and a truck ramming in Nice last July which cost 86 lives. But there have also been plenty of smaller attacks.
Wassim Nasr, a France 24 TV expert on jihadist groups, noted that since the beginning of 2017 there has been at least one terrorist attack, or foiled attack, each month.
Nasr believes France’s involvement in the anti-ISIS coalition is one of the reasons for this, and that France offers opportunities to conduct attacks that are exploited by jihadists.
A study this year by the Center for The Analysis of Terrorism in France found that France is the country that has been most affected by terror attacks linked to the Syria-Iraq conflict.
About 30 percent of those attacks, failed attacks and plots between 2013 and 2016 targeted France, the study found. Among the other most targeted countries were the U.S. (20 percent of attacks), Germany, Australia and Britain.
“As a member of the anti-IS[IS] coalition, France features on the short list of IS[IS] most important Western enemies,” the center’s report said. “Further, numerous francophone jihadis have been involved in the organization's external operations, guiding attacks and plots involving both returnees and aspiring jihadis.”
Myriam Benraad, assistant professor of political science at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, does not agree France is necessarily ISIS’ main target in Europe.
“It is dangerous to overestimate the French dimension. After the attack in Nice, we wanted to see a French peculiarity,” she said. “This is partially true but the explanation is not sufficient.”
Benraad recalled that terror chiefs Osama bin Laden of al-Qaeda and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – who established the precursor of ISIS – referred to two types of jihad.
“The jihad against the regimes in the region, they called the close enemy, like Egypt and Iran for instance, and [the one targeting] the distant enemy, Europe and the U.S.,” she said.
She also recalled ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani’s infamous speech to supporters, posting online in September 2014: “If you can kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that are in the coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah and kill him in any manner…”
Benraad said countries that are part of the anti-ISIS coalition are in fact all targeted, but France is special for several reasons, many linked to its colonial history.
“For the jihadists, France is still a colonial power,” she said. “Don’t forget that many if not all terrorists [operating in France] or their parents are originally from North Africa.”
Benraad said some may see attacking France as a way to “regain dignity.”
While ISIS often oversimplifies issues relating to history and colonialism, she said, bringing them up often can be an effective tool.
Also France, unlike some other European countries, is a secular country which strongly opposes the shari’a-governed “caliphate” that ISIS sought to create in the Middle East.
Many Muslims – not only extremists – have been angered by French policies like bans on Islamic facial coverings.
During the election campaign earlier this year French senator Nathalie Goulet tried to explain why France is targeted by ISIS, and argued that many Muslim migrants struggle to assimilate.
“Many immigrants, including second or third-generation immigrants, live in poor-quality housing in rundown suburbs that some say prevents them from integrating fully into ‘mainstream’ French society and adopting its values,” she said.
There are an estimated 4-5 million Muslims in France, most of them immigrants or descendants of immigrants from former French colonies in North Africa.