TSG IntelBrief: Terrorism and the French Election
April 21, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front:
• On April 20, a gunman attacked police officers in Paris along the Champs-Elysees, killing one and wounding two more.
• French officials are investigating the attack as an act of terrorism; the Islamic State was quick to claim the attack.
• The attacker reportedly had a lengthy and violent criminal record, a characteristic shared by many attackers involved in recent terror incidents across Europe.
• It is unclear how the attack will impact the April 23 first round of the French presidential election.
The April 20 terror attack along the Champs-Elysees in Paris was almost certainly intended to have an impact on the April 23 first round of the French presidential election, though it is uncertain to what extent. The French presidential campaign has already been the target of a Russian disinformation campaign similar to the one employed against the 2016 U.S. election. Among other objectives, Moscow is hoping to further increase the strain on an already fraying European Union. Countering the relentless campaign of fake news involving conspiracies and ‘alternative facts’ has proven as difficult for France as it was—and continues to be—for the U.S. Now, three days before the election—in the midst of the ongoing influence campaign—came a terror attack claimed by the so-called Islamic State that was undoubtedly intended to influence the election as well. The impact the April 20 attack has on the election will depend entirely on how the French electorate reacts, both to the attack itself as well as to the final statements of the leading candidates.
The gunman in the attack, who opened fire on a police van and groups of officers along the Champs-Elysees, killed one officer and seriously wounded two more. The Islamic State claimed the attack though its media proxy Amaq, though both the timing and the wording were somewhat different than their many previous claims; the statements came less than three hours after the attack, and simply called the gunman an ‘attacker’. Typically, the group refers to gunmen in planned attacks ‘soldiers’ or says the attacker was answering the group’s call for terror against the West. The Islamic State gave the attacker’s kunya (a person’s honorific name, made up of family or nationality names) as Abu Yusuf al-Baljiki, suggesting the attacker was from Belgium. French officials have identified the man as Karim Cheurfi, a French national well known to police who had a long and violent criminal history.
As with previous attacks, the gunman was already on the radar of security and intelligence services. Many terrorists—though not all—have criminal histories, moving up the spectrum from drugs, theft, and robbery while forming the networks and associations common to both gangs and terrorist networks. Cheurfi had a particularly violent criminal past; he shot two police officers in 2001 and then shot another during questioning. He was sentenced to 15 years for those attempted murders. The apparent leniency of Cheurfi’s punishment for such brazen assaults, as well as the fact that yet another well known suspected extremist was able to kill in France, may end up having a more significant political impact than the attack itself.
The leading French presidential candidates suspended their campaigns for Friday. Marine Le Pen, whose far-right campaign has tapped into significant anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment in the country, stated the ‘time for naivety was over’ in terms of confronting the terrorist threat. Le Pen’s campaign has been rather openly supported by Russia, both in terms of propaganda and finances, due to her anti-EU positions that suit Moscow’s interests as well. Indeed, Le Pen’s opponents have feared that such an attack in the days leading up to the election could tip the outcome, as happened in Spain after the Madrid train bombings in 2004. Yet the April 20 attack in Paris was much smaller in scale, and France has been battling an increased terror threat in the country for several years now. It remains to be seen how the resilience of French citizens, which has been seriously tested by these attacks, will play out in Sunday’s first round of the election, which has implications that go well beyond concerns over terrorism.
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