Just watch France: the new face of the war on terror

The ramped-up air attacks that France unleashed on supposed ISIS strongholds in Syria are just one aspect of its declared war, Brian Stewart writes. Much more will take place on the homefront as the walls of vigilance rise ever higher.

Preventive detentions, mass roundups, much of the war against ISIS may be felt in France itself

A French gendarme patrols in front of the Louvre Museum Monday as it reopens following the deadly series of attacks in Paris on Friday. Armed police and soldiers are now increasingly present in almost every facet of French life. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

Horrific crises are always before us in this hyperkinetic world, but the attack on Paris last week had that special feeling of one era dying and another, more sinister one, surging to replace it.

Watching those hours of fear, grief and sorrow grind by made any reference to peace seem nostalgic, while the talk of war felt appropriate to a Europe that is becoming physically more guarded and emotionally more hardened.

At one point, while broadcasting on Saturday, I objected to the use of the term "war", which the French president and commentators were throwing about, because it gave ISIS the kind of elevated propaganda credibility it so craved.

But then my objection felt hollow almost the moment it came out: France's declaration of war was probably inevitable, as were the martial steps that followed in wake of Friday's massacres.

France's borders were closed, troops were mobilized in cities and new surveillance powers were proclaimed to allow suspects to be detained and placed under house arrest.

The events in Paris seemed to require that Europe place freedom of movement under close scrutiny right across the continent, and France took the lead, demanding a fingerprinting system and central database covering travel records for everyone on planes and high-speed trains in the EU.

Police raids scooped up scores of suspects, and now "preventative detention" is a hot topic in many capitals.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the former and would-be-again French president, even called for the placing of some 11,500 Muslims who are on some kind of radicalization watch-list under house arrest with electronic tags.

Too many targets

For the most part, authorities seem baffled just how else to handle the thousands of suspected jihadists, including those linked to ISIS.

Democratic societies can be asked to show calm resolve and even serenity when terror attacks happen only every so often — remember George W. Bush counselling Americans to go shopping and carry on with their lives after 9/11. 

But the recovery times between these atrocities are vanishing.

France has endured six terror attacks in 2015, so they're coming almost bi-monthly. Britain, across the channel, is tense as well, having foiled seven plots this year alone, and probably feeling its luck may run out.

What changes everything now is not just the frequency of these attacks but also ISIS's apparent focus on what are called soft targets. This makes every gathering spot a potential ground zero — kindergartens, hospitals, cafés, sports stadiums — and means any single attack is a potential catastrophe.

French police conduct an identity and vehicle check in Paris on Monday. Major thoroughfares, transit and border crossings are also on high alert and could stay that way for some time. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

There's no way police or even troops can guard such a range of potential targets, so the problem of the already overstretched counterterrorist units is with the basic arithmetic.

Their critical need is to keep up surveillance on all suspected terrorists and sympathizers, but they can't even come close.

It can take some 25-30 agents to shadow just one suspect 24/7. But there are thousands of radicalized suspects on police watch-lists across the continent, including those back from serving with ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

Britain and France each have about 500 suspected ex-ISIS warriors within their borders, and many times that number of suspected homegrown radicals.

Added to the lack of agents on the streets is the fact that electronic surveillance is also failing as jihadists have "gone dark" by using new encryption devices and increasingly avoiding phones altogether.

Following the Charlie Hebdo killings in January, the respected former analyst at France's well-regarded counterterrorism service, Yves Trotignon, was blunt about the likelihood of new attacks.

"It is impossible in all of Europe, not only in France but also Germany and everywhere, to monitor every guy coming from Syria or Iraq," he said. "We know in the intelligence community that it is impossible."

War measures acts

Governments know their counterterrorism forces are swamped and so the only recourse is to seek new powers to detain suspects to keep them out of circulation.

It's been done before in near- war situations, of course. Britain used detention without trial during the Northern Ireland insurrection, and has passed legislation allowing it to arrest individuals suspected of being a terrorist without a warrant and to hold them for up to 28 days.

This week French President Francois Hollande promised similar new laws to give the government powers to raid sites across France without warrants and to place people under house arrest.

A state of emergency has been extended for three months and new powers will be sought to permit "exceptional security measures" that may include special detentions.

All this, of course, arrives with terrible irony in the middle of a refugee crisis in which Europe appears shell-shocked by the steady arrival of desperate souls demanding safe havens and by new fears that ISIS might be using these refugee routes itself to mount its campaigns.

Some outsiders, who sympathize with France's declaration of war, may still disapprove of these detentions and new surveillance powers.

Canadians, however, should probably temper any tendency to lecture.

As a reporter in Montreal in 1970 I covered the FLQ Crisis and some of the 3,000 raids under the War Measures Act that dragged close to 500 people off to jail without even the right to see a lawyer.

That was preventative detention at its most boldfaced, and much applauded by Canadians.

This roundup of mere suspects (most were never charged with anything) was approved by then prime minister Pierre Trudeau as part of his government's panic reaction to two political kidnappings and unfounded rumours of an insurrection — a crisis not even close to the ISIS dangers now faced in Europe.

We also have the luxury of being able to handle that other crisis of refugees with deliberation.

And while we all struggle to comprehend this new era we've entered, we probably also need to strive to keep old friends and troubled allies as close as we know how.


Brian Stewart

Canada and abroad

Brian Stewart is one of this country's most experienced journalists and foreign correspondents. He sits on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch Canada. He was also a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. In almost four decades of reporting, he has covered many of the world's conflicts and reported from 10 war zones, from El Salvador to Beirut and Afghanistan.