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The Dangers of a European War on Terror
The Dangers of a European War on Terror
France’s Troop Withdrawal from Mali
France’s Troop Withdrawal from Mali

The Dangers of a European War on Terror

Originally published in Politico Europe

European countries need to take military action and rally around democratic values.

I am French and as such deeply saddened by what happened in Paris, especially after the bombs in Beirut and the destruction of a Russian airliner. Yet I am also a European citizen, deeply concerned by the damage a combination of the terrorist attacks and the refugee crisis may do to European values and to the European project itself.

As EU leaders grapple to find the right response to violent extremism, I passionately believe they can most surely reestablish their sense of security if they stay cool and remain true to the high principles that have long served Europe best.

The triple outrages crowned by the attacks in France’s capital are horrifying. They require a strong response in which military measures abroad have a part, as does security-service cooperation among and beyond European Union member states. But what we need most is a political strategy that gets at the roots of the problems, foreign and domestic, out of which terrorism has grown.

This is a defining moment for Europe, and it must learn from the mistakes of the United States in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. It must calibrate its reactions to the real threats it faces. And it must act in the consciousness that — unlike the U.S., which has some luxury of distance — recent events only underline how much its societies, geography, politics and security have become inextricably bound up with what is happening in the Middle East.

European political elites, already buffeted by the failure to foresee and manage the refugee crisis, understandably feel they are losing control. The vocabulary of war that French President François Hollande and others use is meant to establish a sense of unity, prepare citizens for suffering and herald the long effort ahead. But it also foretells a new global war on terrorism that may be just as unsuccessful as the first one.

Military action needs to be taken to break the momentum of the Islamic State and the aura of invincibility that is a part of its attraction. It is important to deny terrorists safe havens in which they can train and prepare new attacks. But an air campaign will not suffice to destroy ISIL or end violent extremism.

For Western countries and for Russia, who know that another invasion is neither advisable nor politically feasible, the temptation is great to conclude tactical alliances with local allies: the Kurds of northern Iraq or of Syria, the Shi’ite militias of Iraq, or even the Assad regime. They can fight the ground war that foreign powers want to stay away from.

The problem with such alliances is that they contribute to the sectarian and tribal divisions that ISIL feeds on. In the Middle East, the group has used civil wars to prosper. It now wants to export division and communal polarization to Europe — this time between Muslims and non-Muslims — to gain a foothold and weaken the resolve of countries engaged in bombing campaigns against it.

ISIL’s strategy is the best signpost to what a counter-strategy for all forms of violent extremism should be.

In Arab countries, the goal must be to stop the polarization and the wars that are critical to the violent Islamists’ success. In Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, governments that represent only part of the country are unlikely to achieve a lasting military victory against ISIL. That is why we need to prioritize broad peace agreements, and, where appropriate, convince outside powers like Iran and Saudi Arabia to support more inclusive regimes.

Results are unlikely to come quickly, and zones of conflict are more likely to expand than contract in the immediate future. That is why the domestic dimension of an anti-ISIL strategy in European countries threatened by terrorism is so important. This is a long war that will test the resilience of democratic societies.

The risk of terrorist attacks cannot be eliminated, but it can be contained. The internal security dimension is of course key, and European countries must do much more to share intelligence, consolidate databases, and devote more resources to monitoring potential terrorists. But such efforts have their limits, let alone because, if pushed too far, they can jeopardize individual freedom.

The goal of the Islamic State — to divide and polarize both Middle Eastern states and European democratic societies along religious lines — will only be defeated if citizens refuse polarization and rally around the values that define democratic societies.

In that respect, a generous approach to the challenge of refugee flows — which, if well managed, can be a blessing for an aging Europe — will be a test. It will also be a signal to European Muslims, who make up 6 percent of the European population, that a self-confident, multicultural Europe remains their home.

Podcast / Africa

France’s Troop Withdrawal from Mali

In this episode of Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh talk with Sahel experts Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim and Richard Moncrieff about France’s announcement it will pull troops from Mali, and what the withdrawal means for the fighting against jihadist insurgents.

On 17 February, President Emmanuel Macron announced he would withdraw all French troops from Mali after a deployment in the country of almost ten years. In early 2013, French forces together with Chadian troops ousted jihadists from cities and towns in northern Mali, which created space for a peace deal between Bamako and other, non-jihadist rebels. Since then, however, the French-led campaign against militants in the Sahel has struggled against local al-Qaeda and Islamic State branches. French operations have killed jihadist leaders, but militants have extended their reach from northern Mali to its centre and to parts of Niger, Burkina Faso and even Gulf of Guinea countries. Inter-ethnic violence has ballooned. Mali has also suffered two coups over the past couple of years. Relations between Paris and the junta currently holding power have deteriorated sharply, partly because Mali’s military leaders had agreed, mid-2021, to the deployment of Russian private military contractors to help fight jihadists. Popular anger toward France’s deployment has also mounted, seemingly partly fuelled by disinformation. 

This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh talk with Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim and Richard Moncrieff, respectively Crisis Group’s senior Sahel analyst and interim Sahel director, about the French decision, its causes and its implications. They look at the collapse in relations between Bamako and Paris, the direction the junta is currently taking Mali and how other countries in the region have responded. They talk through what the French departure might mean for other forces, including the UN force in Mali and the G5 Sahel regional force. They also examine the repercussions for the balance of force between jihadists and their enemies in the Sahel and ask what a future French presence in the region might look like after the withdrawal from Mali. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

N.B. This episode was recorded before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

For more information, explore Crisis Group’s analysis on our Sahel regional page. For our analysis of African perspectives of the Ukraine War, check out our commentary ‘The Ukraine War: A Global Crisis’.


Executive Vice President
Naz Modirzadeh
Board Member and Harvard Professor of International Law and Armed Conflicts
Consulting Analyst, Sahel
Project Director, Sahel (Interim)