by DAVID AXE & ROBERT BECKHUSEN
When the United States and its allies invaded Iraq in early 2003, France famously objected—and refused to join the coalition occupying force.
Paris’ objection to the war provoked U.S. Congressman Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican, to sponsor a bill requiring the capitol cafeteria to rename french fries as “freedom fries.”
But France only opposed the 2003 Iraq war because, well, it had nothing to do with Islamic militancy and only further destabilized the region, resulting in more terrorism.
In fact, Paris has deployed forces across the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa for years—alone and in coalitions—in an escalating global campaign targeting radical Islamists.
On Jan. 7, militants struck back. But that’s unlikely to dissuade the French. Indeed, lately the French have been boosting their military forces striking Islamic State militants in Iraq.
There’s still a lot we don’t know about the men who attacked the magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Police identified the suspects as two French brothers in their early thirties—Said and Cherif Kouachi.
The men wore masks and black clothes with tactical vests. They carried AK-type rifles when they assaulted the magazine’s offices, screaming “Allahu Ackbar” and the name of the Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda, according to a witness.
The magazine is a satirical product of France’s anti-authoritarian left—somewhat akin to America’s National Lampoon in the 1970s. Two police officers and 10 employees died, including some of France’s most well-known cartoonists and editor Stéphane Charbonnier.
Islamist militants hate Charlie Hebdo. A firebomb burned the publication’s offices in 2011 after it spoofed the Prophet Muhammad. A “wanted” picture of Charbonnier appeared in 2013 edition of Al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine.
Now a bloodbath.
All of this against a satirical magazine that mocks Muhammad with as much irreverence as it does famous novelists, politicians and the Pope.
It’s the bloodiest terrorist attack in France in decades, and the worst in Europe since the July 2011 Norway attacks by right-wing extremist Anders Breivik.
What’s less clear is whether a larger organization gave the terrorists their marching orders. Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq rely on a blend of asymmetric and conventional tactics—including sophisticated command and control systems—to fight on the battlefield.
Worldwide, there’s a looser-knit network of self-motivated sympathizers and affiliates who don’t need Islamic State’s explicit permission to carry out attacks.
French-speaking Islamic State militants know this. In recent months, Islamic State released videos urging French sympathizers to launch attacks at home.
“Operate within France,” foreign fighter Abu Salman Al Faranci said in one such video. “Terrorize them and do not allow them to sleep due to fear and horror.”
The killings will likely harden Paris’ resolve.
France may have sat out the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, but the European state didn’t hesitate to ally with international forces in Afghanistan. French soldiers, police and airmen joined the NATO security force in late 2001—peaking at 4,000—and remained until the end of 2014, when NATO’s combat mission formally ended.
Eighty-eight French troops died in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, Paris’ forces worked closely with U.S. troops to defeat the Al Qaeda-affiliated militant groups across Africa. The French base at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti houses thousands of French, American and allied soldiers, sailors and airmen plus warplanes and naval vessels.
In July 2009, militants from the Somali Al Shabab group kidnapped two French spies at a hotel in Mogadishu. One of the Frenchmen escaped. In January 2013, French commandos raided a compound in Somali hoping to free the other spy, Denis Allex.
But the raid failed. Two commandos died. And Al Shabab later executed Allex.
Four years later in January 2013, a heavy French force struck militants who had been advancing across Mali. Paris deployed 4,000 troops plus tanks, helicopters and warplanes. Nine French soldiers died.
Operation Serval, which France’s Western and African allies strongly supported, routed the militants. And a year and a half later, Paris expanded the operation—and renamed it Barkhane—to include counterterrorism missions across the Sahel region of Sub-Saharan Africa, including Niger and Chad.
And when U.S. and allied forces—including a strong Arab contingent—mobilized against the Islamic State army sweeping through northwest Iraq in mid-2014, France was quick to enlist.
The French air force sent nine Rafale fighters to the United Arab Emirates and six Mirage jets to Jordan to join the growing aerial armada pummeling Islamic State fighters in Iraq. French special forces began training Iraqi troops.
Now six months later, Paris could become one of the biggest contributors to the war on Islamic State. On Jan. 6, Reuters reported that the French aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle—the free world’s largest non-American flattop—would deploy to the Indian Ocean along with three other warships and a submarine.
De Gaulle can carry up to 30 fighters.
Asked if De Gaulle would strike militants in Iraq, a French official was coy. “It’s a military tool,” the official said of the carrier. “Its purpose is to be used.”