Paris attacks confirm France's worst fears: Don Murray

The attacks that have left more than 100 people dead in the Paris area were the nightmare scenario preying on the minds of French police, judges and military and intelligence chiefs for months, Don Murray writes.

When country's nightmare became reality, the French intelligence establishment was trapped in the dark

French military patrol near Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris the day after a series of deadly attacks left authorities scrambling to react. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

Bloody Friday was the nightmare scenario that had preyed on the minds of French police, judges and military and intelligence chiefs. 

"I'm convinced that the men of ISIS have both the ambition and the means to hit us much harder and to organize much bigger actions, in no way comparable to the ones up to now," said Marc Trévedic, who was until earlier this year a senior investigating judge with responsibility for terrorist acts.

"The darkest days are ahead of us. The real war that ISIS wants to wage on our soil hasn't yet started."

Trévedic said that about a month ago.

Yet when the nightmare became reality last night, the French intelligence establishment was trapped in the dark, apparently unaware of the number of assailants and the careful planning that resulted in the worst domestic attacks in the country's history.

After so much murder, officials still aren't sure about the identities of many of the attackers. Seven of the eight dead assailants blew themselves up. Next to one, police apparently found a Syrian passport. 

Hours after the assault on the Bataclan concert hall, which alone left more than 80 dead, French police didn't know who the brain behind all the spilled blood was.

10 months since Charlie Hebdo attack

"This is an act of war.... France will be merciless toward the barbarians." 

Those were the words of French President François Hollande on the dark morning after. But the actions of his government sent a different message. A national state of emergency; schools, museums and theatres closed until further notice in the Paris region; a ban on public marches and demonstrations — all this spoke of a government on the defensive, unsure of where and when the next attack might come.

France has much to fear. Officials number at least 570 French jihadists who have managed to get to Syria to fight. One anti-terrorism police officer described them as time-bombs if and when they return to France.

Just 10 months ago, masked men attacked the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and then a Jewish kosher supermarket. In three days, 20 people were killed, including the three assailants. They were jihadists and their targets were Jews as well as  journalists who had printed cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad.

In response, the French government sent soldiers into the streets to permanently patrol in front of the new offices of Charlie Hebdo as well as synagogues and Jewish schools.

I live about 10 minutes away from the Charlie Hebdo attack and there is a Jewish college on our street. 

On each school day since the January killings, a squad of four to six heavily armed soldiers has stood guard in front of the school. What was reassuring in the first weeks took on a grimmer hue as summer stretched into autumn. If the soldiers were still there, the government must believe that the danger had not receded. 

And it hadn't. 

'Tonight Paris is Beirut'

The morning after the latest bloody attacks, France was frozen. Three days of national mourning were decreed. Political leaders from left to far right lined up to express solidarity with President Hollande. The campaign for countrywide regional elections, to be held in three weeks, was temporarily suspended. 

Marine Le Pen, leader of the extreme-right National Front, was discreet. But just below the surface, rancour bubbled. 

On the right and the far right it was tweeted openly. "Tonight Paris is Beirut," one right-wing MP offered, referring to the attacks in Lebanon earlier this week. "Logical for a country becoming Lebanonized."

"This is the result of a lax approach and the mosqueization of France," a far-right standard bearer said.

ISIS, in a communiqué in French, claimed responsibility for the attacks. The message hinted that most of the suicide attackers were French. It also directly linked the attacks to French participation in the anti-ISIS bombing campaign in Syria. 

Taken together with the poisonous right-wing tweets, the mixture is explosive. Soon, the political truce will be broken. A backlash against French Muslims can be expected along with stoked-up right-wing rhetoric decrying the flood of Syrian refugees and migrants into Europe.

The next weeks and months in France will not be pretty.

Attackers adjust tactics

It is a grim and terrible irony that, despite the military show of force day after day in the streets around the January attack, much of Friday night's carnage took place just steps away. The Bataclan concert hall is less than 200 metres from the Charlie Hebdo offices, where most of its journalists were slain. 

The attackers clearly adjusted their tactics. Rather than targeting specific people — Jews, journalists — they targeted anyone at all. The goal was indiscriminate killing, mass bloodshed. 

A woman reacts as she stands outside Le Carillon restaurant in Paris the day after co-ordinated attacks that killed at least 127 people, bringing the city's worst nightmare to life. (Steve Parsons/Associated Press)

It could have been much worse: The three suicide bombers at the soccer stadium managed to kill only themselves and one other person. But the men wielding submachine guns and killing people in cafés and at the Bataclan were horrendously effective.

There was a slightly unreal calm in the streets just south of the killing zone on Saturday. People lined up at the butcher's. Cafés were far from empty. 

Televisions blared the news that everyone knew. Few commented on the attacks unless asked. And then, a shrug and talk of carrying on, of the bitter taste of the aftermath, of a feeling akin to a hangover. 

For these people, wars used to be faraway events brought closer by television reports in two-minute slices. I myself used to go to war zones to work and then leave, shedding the experience like the skin of another life.

It's quite a different and unnerving sensation to hear the sirens in the night, to see the wounded being carried away on stretchers in the next street and to realize that the war zone is now on your doorstep.


Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.