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Schanzer on Why France? Why Now?

Counter-terrorism expert discusses Nice attack and next steps for Europe and US

David Schanzer

A truck driven into the crowds at a festival in Nice, France, killed more than 80 people Thursday and is suspected to be the third major terrorist attack in France in 18 months. In this Q&A with Duke Today, Duke professor David Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, said while terrorism is a global threat, there are reasons why France is particularly at risk.

Q: Why was France attacked again -- the third major attack in 18 months?

Schanzer: The problem in France has been brewing for decades, it will take a long time to turn around. There is a large population of deeply disaffected second- or third-generation Muslim immigrants, some of whom have been involved in low-level crime and spent time in jail. They are dissatisfied with their lives and latch on to the ISIS ideology as a way of giving voice to their grievances. They convince themselves that mass violence against Westerners and dying in the process gives glory, notoriety and meaning to their lives.


Q: Why can’t French authorities prevent these attacks? 

Schanzer: France just successfully held the European soccer tournament, so they have demonstrated the ability to provide strong security at large public gatherings. It is just very difficult to stop an individual willing to kill himself who does not have connectivity to networks of other terrorists and criminals and effectively hides his planning. It appears that the driver of the truck fits this description, but it is still early in the investigation.

Nice, France

People take pictures to French flags flying at half mast on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France. Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Q: What does France need to do to prevent additional attacks?

Schanzer: Intelligence, counterterrorism and law enforcement have been under-resourced in France for some time. This is changing since the attacks in Paris, but it takes time to turn things around. France has been in a state of emergency for six months that has allowed more raids and arrests with a lower threshold of evidence. So it is not a matter of legal authority, but rather building the capacity to meet the magnitude of the threat.  And even then, individuals without connections to known extremists or a record of travel to Syria can fly under the radar and do grave damage.


Q: Should this attack lead to a change of policy by Western nations against ISIS? 

Schanzer: Simplistic calls for more bombings won’t speed the fight against ISIS. The air campaign has been proceeding for almost two years -- obvious, legitimate military targets are being hit and hit hard already. The strategy of supporting and partnering with local forces like the Iraqi Army and Kurdish peshmerga in Iraq and Syria makes sense, but is not moving at the pace that we would desire. As the local forces are doing more, we are adding greater levels of support -- indeed Defense Secretary Carter announced an additional 500 U.S. troops are going to the region to provide more training and support to this effort.

Defeating ISIS’ ‘caliphate’ in Iraq and Syria is necessary, but will not necessarily end the terrorist attacks against the West, as ISIS will continue to exist as a movement and operate more like a global terrorist network in the future than the pseudo-state it is now.


Q: Is America vulnerable to the type of attacks we have seen in France?

Schanzer: The problem in France is much larger in scale and more deeply engrained than in the United States. Unlike in France, Muslim immigrants to the United States are, by and large, well-integrated, happy with their lives here and prospering. So the pool of individuals that might be attracted to the ISIS ideology is much smaller.

We also have well-resourced and effective domestic intelligence collection and law enforcement agencies. That said, in a large country of 320 million people, individuals or pairs of individuals who are disaffected from American life and are angry and dissatisfied for any variety of reasons can still latch on to the ISIS ideology and choose to engage in violence as we have seen in San Bernardino and Orlando.