under-the-skin

Seen, Read & Heard in January

Seen
Under the Skin

About 18 months ago, I was trying to work in Foyle’s Café in London when a man started an hour-long phone call in a loud voice next to me. I would have been annoyed except he turned out to be an agent for director Jonathan Glazer, describing his next project as “like Casino meets The Shining” (something to do with a guy who can see ghosts from Las Vegas’s glory days). It sounds ridiculous, the man said, but in Glazer’s hands would obviously turn out wonderful. And if it happens, that man will surely be proved right, because Glazer is a bloody genius.

The conceit of “Under The Skin” is also pretty frivolous – Scarlett Johansson as an alien wandering the streets of Glasgow luring men to a bizarre death in a black pool. But lurking under its icy exterior is a fierce genius and knowing grin. Johansson might as well be playing herself, looking utterly alien and confused in the drab real world. The unflinching look at Glasgow nightlife, never captured as honestly as here, is perhaps the most horrifying thing in the whole film.

This is arthouse cinema – the pace is slow and the tone downright weird and uncomfortable – but it’s compelled along by the fact Glazer never explains too much, making a mini-puzzle out of each scene. His advertising day-job (he made the iconic 1990s Guinness commercials) means he knows how to tell a story with just a few brushstrokes. The introduction is a master-class in concision – just a shot of an eye opening and a few lines being practiced to describe the alien taking human form. He also has the ad director’s feel for simple, striking ideas – the most powerful being the scene in which the alien obliviously seduces a man disfigured by facial tumours (played by Adam Pearson, who has neurofibromatosis). It’s a far cry from his universally adored debut Sexy Beast, but after a long decade away from cinemas, Glazer once again proved he is Britain’s most exciting director.

Read
Paris Stories - Mavis Gallant

Not much time to read fiction this month, what with everything happening in Paris, aside from a few stories by Mavis Gallant. Written after her arrival in the city from Canada, they look beyond France towards the whole of postwar Europe, expertly sketching everyday characters that are increasingly forgotten the further we move away from that time. She spies on budding entrepreneurs failing to ride the boom of the ‘50s and ‘60s; or Germans returning to ordinary life and seeking to bury the past (“they saw they had been tricked … it was as simple as that to them – the equivalent of an insurance company’s having failed to meet its obligation”). Gallant’s subtle, unshowy style sneaks up on you, reminding me of the Stefan Zweig stories I read last year, but the radical touches which made her a major figure in the development of short stories reveal themselves by stealth.

Heard
Who is William Onyeabor?

It is surely near-impossible not to love this stuff: African beats set against early electronica, it’s light and easy-going and danceable. And the backstory is incredible: Onyeabor made a string of albums in 1970s/80s that were barely heard outside his part of Nigeria, and then disappeared into obscurity until an enthusiast tracked him down a few years ago in some non-descript town where he ran a semolina factory. He spent two years refusing to allow the re-issue of his music before relenting. Its wonderful stuff, with a fair dose of political and rebellious messaging in there and the artwork is great. If you can escape the nagging sense that you are of a piece with a horde of Guardian-reading hipsters who experience a self-satisfied erection every time they see it in their record collection, this is one of the best album purchases you can make.

This is a monthly feature. My choices for the year were published on my (very) short-lived Medium page here.  

Part-PAR-Par8080497-1-1-0

A promising life in France given up for jihad

Everyone working in counter-terrorism knows there is no single profile for terrorists, and no set of factors that can indicate whether someone is on the path to violent radicalism. I went to Alsace this week to find out about a young man who left to join Islamic State last year (see story below or on Yahoo here) who had a very different profile from the shitty existence that spawned the Paris attackers.

But nonetheless certain groups and personality types are over-represented in the jihadist community, and I was surprised to what extent. As expert Thomas Hegghammer explained to me (2nd half of the story below), a large percentage of jihadists are basically losers. He pointed me towards this leaked study from German intelligence showing how badly most were doing before they left. 

One point he made which I didn’t have room for: Some studies of terrorists from the Middle East show a bias towards people with altruistic or caring personalities (albeit mixed with fatalism). This may go against the grain, but makes sense from the point of view that you have to be willing to sacrifice yourself for what you (perhaps perversely) consider the greater good. Altruism — feeling like the good guy — is also a personal reward. 

afp

He had a promising graphic designer job, plans to be a wedding videographer and was a star sportsman in his French town. So how did Youssoup Nassoulkhanov end up in an Islamic State group video praising the Paris attacks?

The streets of Schiltigheim in the Alsace region of eastern France are not a terrorist breeding ground.

Although the town has never quite recovered from the shuttering of factories in the 1980s, and a fifth of the population remains unemployed, it still has a quaint feel and is just 10 minutes from the charming, busy centre of Strasbourg.

Until he disappeared last summer, the polite, hard-working 20-year-old working in the graphics department of the town hall didn’t ring any warning bells.

“We talked, we joked around, he was a good kid. He had no hatred for France or the French or non-Muslims,” said Yann Lymand, who worked next to Nassoulkhanov for over a year.

He says the person he knew is impossible to square with the bearded, Kalashnikov-wielding Nassoulkhanov in last week’s video for the Islamic State group in Syria, praising the jihadists who killed 17 people in Paris this month.

“There will be more and more of these operations in the whole of Europe, God willing,” says Nassoulkhanov in the video.

“To those brothers who can’t come to Islamic State territory, do whatever you can. Kill them, slit their throats, burn their cars, burn their houses,” he says.

‘IT STILL HURTS’

Nassoulkhanov, a Russian from the Chechen region who moved to France when he was 15, had worked at the local council since May 2013 on a trainee programme.

For Lymand, who took him under his wing, prepped him for a full-time job and helped him through housing and personal difficulties, the video was a shock.

“I can’t watch it — it still hurts me,” he said, welling up.

There are few clues to what drove Nassoulkhanov’s radicalisation.

He was frustrated at supporting his whole family and had fought with his father. There were rumours of a girlfriend not accepted by the tight-knit Chechen community.

One Muslim colleague says Nassoulkhanov spent longer and longer hours at the mosque, sometimes four or five a day during Ramadan.

But if he had radical thoughts, they were well hidden.

He was highly skilled at “Street Workout”, a strenuous form of gymnastics and acrobatics, and practised almost daily with youngsters from many different backgrounds in parks around the town.

He was good enough to compete in national championships and appear in a TV news feature on the sport last year.

He also loved video and filmed weddings for the Chechen community — often travelling to Paris to do so. He was excited about plans to set up his own wedding video business.

A study by German intelligence, leaked last year, showed the vast majority who have left Germany to fight in Syria were uneducated and unemployed.

Of nearly 400 jihadists investigated, only a quarter had finished school and two percent university. Barely one in 10 had a job. Two-thirds had a criminal record.

“The median terrorist in Europe isn’t doing well in life,” said Thomas Hegghammer, a Norwegian expert on jihadists.

“Poverty makes terrorists not because they are angry at being poor, but because it takes them into certain walks of life, such as prisons. It also makes people vulnerable to recruiters.”

The Paris attacks confirmed the stereotype: all three assailants were from deprived housing projects and broken homes.

But examples still abound of people like Nassoulkhanov who give up promising futures to join a bloodthirsty global jihad.

Dounia Bouzar, who runs an anti-radicalisation centre in Paris, says extremists are consciously targeting a wider cross-section of society.

“They offer different types of dreams and utopias. They try to reach young people who might be in the second year of studying political science or medicine — from stable, loving middle-class families.”

Experts have long since realised that chasing a definitive profile for a terrorist is a fool’s errand.

“Radicalisation research has stagnated,” said Hegghammer. “We’ve come to the end of what we can do with the available information and there are no clear conclusions.”

A lack of data makes divining any specific psychological trait almost impossible.

There is a wide range of factors that can push someone into violent jihad, and two people with the same disposition can go in radically different directions.

“Some are action-seekers, some are trying to get clear answers to things, some just enjoy sub-cultures,” said Hegghammer.

The result is very little warning when a relative or friend suddenly disappears and then crops up in a video from Syria.

“It’s not like Youssoup didn’t have anything in his life,” said Lymand, back in Schiltigheim. “To see him like that in the video, it was impossible for me to believe.”

afp-paris-march-against-extremism-live-report

The historic march in Paris shows us the jihadist threat to the West is pathetic

It’s a cliche that gets banded about a lot in journalism, but today’s march in Paris truly was historic – an unprecedented show of resolve that was imbued with over a decade of considering and learning and coming to understand the threat of global jihadism. It was the moment the West came of age on this issue — realising that these attacks do not call for more violence, but instead call for people to come out and show they are not afraid. Even for this cynical bastard, it was deeply moving.

And the primary reason for that — and the primary lesson to be taken from today — is that the terrorist threat in Europe is extremely weak, and I don’t mean that in the sanctimonious “we shall not be moved” sense that politicians spout on such occasions.

If there really was a major jihadist threat to the West — if, as raw-knuckled thugs and monstrous old reptiles would have us believe, the Muslim population was a terrifying Fifth Column on the verge of destroying Western civilisation from within — then there would have been an attack on the march today.

No greater opportunity will present itself to jihadists for a generation. For all the heightened security, there was no way to control anything happening among the millions who poured on to the streets of France.

A simple homemade bomb would have caused panic, possibly a stampede. And it would have utterly destroyed the spirit of reassuring defiance that has characterised this week’s astonishing, spontaneous rallies.

It was something we uttered under our breaths to each other in the AFP HQ this morning, terrified of ushering the thought into reality by speaking it out loud. Yet it was the most obvious thought: if the jihadists were serious, they would attack the rally.

A well-placed hit could have killed or injured some 50 world leaders. Anyone who saw Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s face while he stood in the line at the front of the march — the hand of his security guard ready on his shoulder — will know he was thinking about very little else.

And then it didn’t happen.

Of course this has something to do with the work of the intelligence services, but clearly their resources are limited. That much is obvious from the fact that they failed to keep tabs on three jihadists who between them were already known to have: trained with Al Qaeda in Yemen, spent time with some of the most watched extremists in French prisons, been convicted of involvement in radical networks, and been on US terror watchlists. I don’t think there has been another attack on Western soil committed by such over-the-radar individuals.

But the more pertinent aspect is not that we are well-protected by the state but that there isn’t a a very serious threat from the religious people in our midst. To an overwhelming degree, even the people who vehemently disagree with Western ideas about secularism and taking offence are not actually dangerous.

A terrible and wrong-headed distinction has been made this week in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks that pits supporters of free expression against anyone who takes offence from cartoons of the prophet. In fact, free expression includes the right to take offence. I might vehemently disagree with you if you take offence to… well, just about anything. And I might think you are an ignorant, humourless dullard utterly devoid of wit, imagination or value.

But the deal is you get to take offence, and I get to think you are an idiot, and no one dies.

Pretty much everyone in the Western world — and many, many people beyond it — agrees with that deal, regardless of their background. Even, I suspect, quite a few of the hardcore radicals that leave Europe to join the jihad in Syria and Iraq.

This week, three guys turned up who didn’t agree with that deal. They had managed to stay out of prison long enough – and have the right capabilities and resources and blind luck – to do something shocking. That doesn’t come around very often.

Vigilance against further attacks is of course vital. Over 1,000 French have travelled to the Middle East to join the jihad and may return with plans for mayhem. Covertly keeping an eye on all of them — in addition to all the other potential dangers — is a massive task for the security services, and clearly they need more resources to do so.

But let’s not lose sight of the fact that the threat is negligible. Politicians can’t say that sort of thing, since they are terrified of soundbites that could come back to haunt them, but no amount of attacks will actually bring down Western civilisation.

By missing such a massive open target on Sunday, the jihadists have shown they are not the threat to Western society that far-right leaders want us to imagine. They are just the occasional, bloodthirsty scumbag, who do us the great service of being happy to die.

FRANCE-ISRAEL-DIPLOMACY

France and Israel compete for the affection of Jews in wake of Charlie Hebdo attacks

afp

This week’s deadly jihadist attacks have again set off a competition between the French and Israeli governments to reassure and secure the affection of France’s increasingly nervous Jewish population.

Not for the first time, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used an attack by Islamic extremists in France to urge the country’s Jews to relocate.

“To all the Jews of France, all the Jews of Europe, I would like to say that Israel is not just the place in whose direction you pray, the state of Israel is your home,” he said in a statement on Saturday.

Responding from outside the Jewish supermarket in Paris where four hostages died on Friday, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls sought to counter Netanyahu’s words.

“France, without its Jews, is not France,” he said.

“The Jews of France, for several years, have been frightened,” he added, before trying to reassure them that “today, we are all Charlie, all police officers, all the Jews of France.”

President Francois Hollande met leaders of the French Jewish community at the Elysee Palace on Sunday morning where he vowed to protect Jewish schools and synagogues with the army if necessary.

Speaking after the meeting, Joel Mergui, president of Central Israelite Consistory of France, said: “We can’t reproach any community for thinking about where to raise their children in security… but if France stands up for its democratic society that jihadists want to destroy… then Jews will certainly have fewer doubts about their future.”

Hollande also said he would visit the Grand Synagogue in Paris after Sunday’s mass rally of national solidarity in memory of the 17 victims of this week’s attacks including an assault on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and the supermarket.

A spate of anti-Semitic incidents had already put France’s Jewish community — the third largest in the world at 500,000-600,000 — on edge.

In what President Francois Hollande described as an “unbearable” attack, assailants last month stormed the flat of a young couple, raping the woman and stealing jewellery and bank cards.

Tensions over the recent Gaza conflict also spilled out into the streets in July with looters destroying Jewish businesses and shouting anti-Israeli slogans.

Netanyahu will be among the world leaders attending the march on Sunday.

The Israeli prime minister has tried to lure France’s Jews to his country on a previous occasion, following attacks by Islamist Mohamed Merah in and around Toulouse in southwest France in March 2012.

During a visit to France for a commemoration service the following October, Netanyahu declared: “I always say to Jews wherever they are — come to Israel and make it your home.”

That triggered a war of words with Hollande, who slammed Netanyahu for turning the visit into a campaigning opportunity ahead of elections a few months later.

“Netanyahu came to France to campaign,” Hollande said in private remarks leaked by a French newspaper.

“Since I was there, he toned down his speech but it wasn’t good to transform this ceremony into an electoral meeting. It wasn’t appropriate,” Hollande said.

Netanyahu did not get on much better with Hollande’s right-wing predecessor.

Nicholas Sarkozy was thought to have close ties with the Israeli leader, but unaware his microphone was switched on at a G20 meeting in November 2011, he was overheard telling US President Barack Obama: “I cannot bear Netanyahu, he’s a liar.”

PA-2904627

Muslims fear backlash from France Charlie Hebdo attack

afp

Somewhere in the midst of the chaos of the past three days, I wrote this paper discussing the integration of Muslims in France and the difficulties they are already facing with regard to the Charlie Hebdo attack. It’s worth remembering that people have the right to be offended, even if we think they are wrong or stupid for being so. They just don’t have the right to kill people — a distinction which many ordinary Muslims seem better able to understand than many media commentators.

Muslims in France were called to pay homage at Friday prayers to the 12 victims of this week’s magazine massacre which has stoked fears of Islamophobia in a country that has struggled to integrate its millions-strong Islamic minority.

The French Muslim Council had called on people to gather “in dignity and silence” and urged imams to condemn “violence and terrorism”.

But this week’s shocks have put the country’s Muslims in a difficult position.

“To be a Muslim in this country today is to be stuck between the hammer and the anvil: between these guys who massacre in the name of their religion and growing anti-Muslim racism,” Mustafa Amokrane, the well-known singer with band Zebda, said this week.

Shots have been fired at mosques in several towns since Wednesday’s massacre, racist slogans daubed on walls and a pig’s head hung on the door of a prayer hall in Corsica.

France has long had a combustible relationship with its Muslim minority — the largest in Europe at between 3.5 and 5 million — that dates back to its bloody struggles in its former North African colonies and the legacy of immigrants trapped in some of France’s poorest districts.

Long decades of insurgency against French rule in Algeria in the mid-twentieth century, followed by a spate of Algerian terrorist attacks in France in the 1990s created difficulties for communal relations — which reawakened with the rise of global militancy after 9/11.

A study by the Open Society Institute in 2009 found 57% of French Muslims considered religious discrimination widespread and a majority thought it had worsened in the past five years.

The rise of the far-right National Front and the fact that hundreds of young French Muslims have left to join militant brigades in Iraq and Syria has only hardened the barriers.

And a debate still rages over whether Muslims have been integrated or not.

“The very large majority are integrated,” said Claude Dargent, a sociology professor at Sciences Po university in Paris.

“And for those who aren’t, it’s less a question of religion than their social and economic situation.”

French Muslims are much more represented in the unemployment figures than the wider population — a result of the fact that many immigrants came to fill low-paid jobs during France’s postwar boom only for their children to suffer when jobs dried up in the 1970s and after.

Unemployment is seen as one of the key triggers behind the violent riots that broke out in Paris suburbs in November 2005.

“The unrest was both a direct result of the idleness of many youth of immigrant origin and an indirect result of the creation of a vicious cycle in which because these young people have little hope of getting a good job in the future, they have no real incentive to succeed at school,” wrote Jonathan Laurence and Justin Vaisse of the Brookings Institute in a recent report.

Even faced with economic difficulties, many argue the problem of integration stems from the cold shoulder they face from politicians and intellectuals.

France’s ban on the Muslim face veil and the hostility to mosque building by local authorities has combined with a slew of books that smack of Islamophobia, most recently the novel of Michel Houellebecq imagining a Muslim takeover of the country in 2022.

“When these shapers of public opinion consistently raise criticisms of Muslims… they rarely exhibit any self-awareness that they themselves are standing in the way of (integration),” wrote Jennifer Fredette, author of “Constructing Muslims in France”, in the Washington Post recently.

Many were left conflicted by the widespread offence caused by Charlie Hebdo’s often crude caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed.

The magazine is “free to say what it wants, but not to touch religion. Are the caricatures of Prophet Muhammed humour? No. But you don’t have the right to kill people,” a Muslim wedding dress shop employee in Paris said.

She fears this week’s violence will deepen divisions.

“I’m afraid they’ll put everyone in the same bag. Last night, when I was heading home, I got a few remarks from someone. I saw the way he was looking at me — it was frightening.”

Others have put a darkly humourous spin on the uncomfortable atmosphere.

“If your name is Muhammed or Karim and you have a job interview tomorrow, you might as well stay at home and play Fifa (football game),” tweeted one young Muslim man after the attack on Wednesday.

Influential blogger Fateh Kimouche said it was wrong to argue that Muslims had not done enough.

“We mobilise ourselves all the time. I would recall that Muslims have also been affected: one of the policemen killed was called Ahmed Merabet. We are not spared.”

article-74394065-fca6-4c64-a2aa-1310173d1f70-6VQoGYVOdHSK2-817_634x404 (1)

Charlie Hebdo suspects well-known to anti-terror police

afp

One had a long history of jihadist ties and links to a key Islamic State militant while the other was on a US watchlist and trained with Al-Qaeda in Yemen, yet the Charlie Hebdo suspects still managed to slip under the radar of French intelligence.

Cherif Kouachi, 32, and his brother Said, 34, are accused of carrying out the deadly attacks on the office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday that left 12 dead.

Born to Algerian parents in Paris and orphaned at a young age, they grew up in the east of the city not far from the site of this week’s attack.

According to US officials, Said Kouachi was known by French intelligence to have travelled to Yemen in 2011, where he received training from Al-Qaeda’s affiliate there in small arms combat and marksmanship.

Both were on a US database and no-fly list as terror suspects.

Cherif’s history with jihadist networks is even better documented and dates back over a decade to his days as part of the “Butte-Chaumont network”, named after a park in the 19th arrondissement of Paris where its members lived.

This group of young, radical Muslims helped transport people to Iraq to join Al-Qaeda’s fight against US forces at the height of their intervention.

The younger Kouachi, sometimes going by the name Abu Issan, was only 22 when the network was broken up by French police. He was arrested just as he was about to fly to Syria in 2005, from which he was due to travel on to the fight in Iraq.

In an interview shortly after his arrest published by the Pittsburgh Tribune, his lawyer Vincent Ollivier said Kaouchi, then 22, was not particularly religious.

“He drank, smoked pot, slept with his girlfriend and delivered pizzas for a living,” the newspaper reported.

At his trial in 2008, Kaouchi said he was inspired by the abuse of detainees by US troops at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison, but was relieved he did not have to go through with the trip.

He told the court he was working at a supermarket and his main interest was rap music, not jihad. An amateur video of his early MC skills — shot a year before his arrest — is now circulating on social media.

Despite his claims to being a reluctant fundamentalist, Kouachi was sentenced to three years in prison — half of it suspended — and his contact with radicals only grew.

Within months of getting out, he was embroiled in another plot, this time a failed prison break for Algerian Islamist Smain Ait Ali Belkacem in May 2010.

Belkacem was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2002 for a bombing at the Musee D’Orsay metro station in Paris in October 1995 that left around 30 injured.

Kouachi had reportedly grown close to another militant Djamel Beghal, who ended up serving 10 years for his role as “kingpin” in the break-out attempt. The charges against Kouachi were dropped.

– Ties to IS –

Al-Qaeda in Iraq gradually evolved into the Islamic State (IS) group, which broke ties with the parent group and gained worldwide infamy last year when it seized large swathes of Syria and Iraq and executed a number of Western hostages.

There are indications that Kouachi may have ties to IS, since he grew up with French-Tunisian Boubaker al-Hakim, who was also a key member of the Butte-Chaumount network.

Hakim was tried at the same time as Kouachi, receiving a seven-year sentence. He immediately returned to militancy after his release and claims responsibility for the high-profile assassination of two secular politicians, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, in Tunisia in 2013.

Hakim “represents the link between the Kouachi brothers and (IS),” said researcher Jean-Pierre Filiu, a leading expert on radical Islam at Paris’s Sciences Po university.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack, “but it is certain that (IS) is closely following it and waiting to see how it ends,” said Filiu.

“I am sure that the video claiming responsibility is already prepared.”

On Thursday, IS radio praised the Charlie Hebdo killers as “heroes”.

But despite all the attention on Kouachi over the years, experts say constant surveillance is not possible.

“At some point surveillance comes to an end, especially if you are smart enough to watch your step for a while. These are inevitable holes in the net,” said Eric Denece, director of the French Centre for Intelligence Research.

0009fc80-642

French satirical newspaper high on jihadist hit-list

A crazy day in Paris today. Here’s a quick analysis from shortly after events unfolded.

afp

Long before being targeted in Wednesday’s massacre in Paris, satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo had been considered high on the potential hit-list for jihadists calling for strikes in the heart of Europe.

When Charlie Hebdo defiantly republished already controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed considered sacrilegious by Muslims in 2006, it knew it was taking a risk.

After it ran new cartoons of the prophet in November 2011, the payback started.

The weekly was fire-bombed and its website was hacked. But staff refused to be cowed and upped the ante still further the following year with a set of cartoons that included Mohammed in the nude — guaranteed to offend millions of Muslims.

In 2013, its editor-in-chief Stephane Charbonnier — one of those killed Wednesday — appeared on a “Wanted Dead or Alive” list published in Al Qaeda’s magazine, Inspire.

“Charlie Hebdo became a symbol,” said Louis Caprioli, former head of counter-terrorism at France’s DST intelligence agency.

“They never forgot nor forgave what they considered a supreme insult. The choice of this target is highly symbolic: they targeted secularists who dared to mock the prophet. In their eyes, it’s divine vengeance.”

While Charlie Hebdo’s uncompromising stance against censorship won many supporters in Europe, Wednesday’s attack demonstrates that its staff may have underestimated the scale of the danger.

“This attack is designed to show the ability to strike at targets that were blase and sarcastic about the potential threat to them,” said Matthew Henman, of IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre in London.

“It’s increasingly clear there are radical Islamists out there who are able and willing to take action to remedy perceived insults to Islam.”

Although the satirical newspaper and its editor-in-chief had police protection, it still represented a relatively soft target to determined attackers armed with automatic rifles.

“Historically we have seen many attacks on cultural targets,” said Raffaello Pantucci, a terrorism expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London, citing the threats against author Salman Rushdie and a firebomb attack against the London publisher of a book about the child bride of Mohammed in 2008.

“Any target that is defined as the enemy is legitimate, and these sort of targets are less protected than police stations or military bases.”

FRANCE AS PRIME TARGET

There are conflicting reports about which group the three gunmen may have represented and there has yet to be a clear claim of responsibility.

But it was clear from video shot by eyewitnesses that the men, armed with Kalashnikov rifles, were calm and professional, suggesting they may have had training.

France itself is seen as increasingly a top target for jihadists seeking to strike the West.

It has been involved in the US-led air campaign against the Islamic State group in Iraq since September, and France was singled out in the militant organisation’s call on supporters to mount “lone wolf” attacks late last year.

Experts say that the attacks could, alternatively, be an effort by Al Qaeda to win back the spotlight from IS.

“It’s perfectly possible that this could be Al Qaeda trying to regain attention — they have been calling for this sort of thing for a long time,” said Pantucci.

“Ever since the gunmen attacks in Mumbai in 2008, many groups have been asking how they could copy them. There are relatively low requirements — you just need men with guns, set them loose in the urban environment and cause chaos.”

France’s secular policies at home and military operations in Africa have also also angered the jihadist community.

“France has come under a lot of fire from jihadists for its ban on the Muslim veil and its increasingly proactive role in international affairs, particularly in Mali and to a lesser extent the Central African Republic,” said Henman.

French forces took the lead in combating Islamist extremists that had seized large swathes of Mali in 2013 and still has 3,000 troops deployed in the Sahel region. They are also a key part of peace-keeping efforts in CAR where Christians and Muslims have violently clashed over the past two years.

France also has Europe’s largest Muslim population. Around 1,000 people from that community have travelled to Iraq and Syria to join the jihad, raising fears they could return home to sow terror.

“The question now is whether this is an isolated operation,” said Caprioli. “Are we entering a new stage with a cell that is going into action? Is a cycle of attacks coming?

“What is clear is that these killers must be found, and fast.”