What France Does Best: Despite Differences over the Iraq War, France and the United States Cooperate Extensively on Fighting Terrorism. in Fact, as Reuel Marc Gerecht and Gary Schmitt Explain, France Has Become Europe's Counterterrorist Powerhouse

By Gerecht, Reuel Marc; Schmitt, Gary | The American (Washington, DC), March-April 2008 | Go to article overview

What France Does Best: Despite Differences over the Iraq War, France and the United States Cooperate Extensively on Fighting Terrorism. in Fact, as Reuel Marc Gerecht and Gary Schmitt Explain, France Has Become Europe's Counterterrorist Powerhouse


Gerecht, Reuel Marc, Schmitt, Gary, The American (Washington, DC)


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Counterterrorism, like espionage and covert action, isn't a spectator sport. The more a country practices, the better it gets. France has become the most accomplished counterterrorist practitioner in Europe. Whereas September 11, 2001, was a shock to the American counterterrorist establishment, it wasn't a revolution des mentalites in Paris. Two waves of terrorist attacks, the first in the mid-1980s and the second in the mid-1990s, have made France acutely aware of both state-supported Middle Eastern terrorism and freelancing but organized Islamic extremists.

In comparison, the security services in Great Britain and Germany were slow to awaken to the threat from homegrown radical Muslims. Britain's gamble was that its multicultural approach to immigrants was superior to France's forced-assimilation model. But with the discovery of one terrorist plot after another being planned by British Muslims, as well as the deadly transportation bombings that took place in London on July 7, 2005, the British have begun to question the wisdom of their "Londonistan" approach to Muslim immigration. Similarly, until recently, the belief in Berlin was that Germany was safe from homegrown Muslim terrorism; but two major bomb plots over the past year and a half--one aimed at German trains, the second at American installations and interests in Germany--have raised serious doubts in the minds of many German security officials about that previous assumption.

And French scholars and journalists have been way ahead of their European and American counterparts in dissecting Islamic extremism and in analyzing the phenomenon of European-raised Muslim militants. French officials who work in counterterrorism are well apprised of this intellectual spadework, often maintaining friendly relationships with scholars and journalists working in the field. The French interior ministry and prison system, for example, were remarkably helpful to the Franco-Iranian sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar in his interviews of jailed al-Qaeda members. Khosrokhavar's book, Quand Al-Qaida parle: Temoignages derriere les barreaux ("When Al-Qaeda Speaks: Testimonies from Behind Bars") is easily the most insightful look into the mind of Westernized members of al-Qaeda.

And consider the Marsaud Report, issued in 2005 by a special parliamentary commission charged with examining France's counterterrorist capacities. It states well the general French view of the threat posed by radical Islamic terrorism and is perhaps the most cogent statement yet by a European governing body on why its citizens are inextricably involved in the fight against radical Islamic terrorism and unavoidably tied to the United States:

"The absence of Islamist attacks on French soil since 9/11 should not be misinterpreted: it does not signify at all that France has been immunized from such actions, notably because of its position on the Iraq conflict. Elsewhere, we have already indicated that terrorist cells have been taken apart [since 9/11]--cells which were planning attacks on our soil. Further, outside of our national territory, French targets were struck, like the May 8, 2002, attack in Karachi ... or the attack against the oil tanker Limburg off of Yemen on October 6, 2002. France is an integral part of Western civilization, a target of radical Islamic terrorists. In this regard, she figures among the potential targets of these terrorists to the same extent as any other Western nation."

Post-9/11, the CIA and the FBI decided to headquarter America's premier European counterterrorist liaison shop in Paris because they recognized, despite the acrimony arising from the run-up to the Iraq war, that France was the European country most serious about counterterrorism.

What America Can Learn

Can America draw any lessons from France's encounter with Islamic terrorism? The two countries have separate histories of interaction with the Muslim world and philosophical differences when it comes to legal systems and the role of the state domestically.

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What France Does Best: Despite Differences over the Iraq War, France and the United States Cooperate Extensively on Fighting Terrorism. in Fact, as Reuel Marc Gerecht and Gary Schmitt Explain, France Has Become Europe's Counterterrorist Powerhouse
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