The five years following the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris saw two important changes in jihad- inspired terrorism in France. Between 1995 and 2015, the profile of the terrorists and their modus operandi were quite constant: a huge majority of young, second- generation Muslims, mainly from North Africa, and a smaller group of converts, who set up networks of relatively well-trained friends and brothers, aimed at killing the largest possible number of people by using explosives and automatic weapons. Many of them got training in a jihad battlefield (Afghanistan, Bosnia, Yemen, Syria). They benefited from more or less sophisticated logistical support from a second circle of friends and sympathizers, and, from 2000 onwards, they were acting under instructions from a “central”: first Al Qaeda, then ISIS. In a few cases, the terrorists acted on their own, but pledged loyalty to AQ or ISIS before acting.
After 2015, starting with Nice in July 2016, the picture changed. The terrorist acted alone, with little or no effective support from a second circle of acquaintances. He used makeshift weapons (a truck in Nice), and in most of the cases a knife. Profiles became more heterogeneous in terms of age, social background and ethnic or national origin; there were more converts (like the police employee Michael Harpon), some women, more recent migrants (like the two attacks in Nice in 2017 and 2020), and more diverse ethnic backgrounds (a Pakistani and a Chechen). None of them had any training in a foreign jihad, and while some of them paid tribute to ISIS, there is no proof of a concrete link between them and any terrorist headquarters abroad. More troubling is the systematic use of knives instead of guns: it is certainly connected to the absence of a support network, but, because it is not very difficult to buy a gun on the black market, it seems that it is also connected to a different conception of the attack. The aim seems not to make as many victims as possible but to perpetrate some sort of “sacrifice” (hence the knife and beheading) before being killed (a common point with the precedent generation of terrorists is that they die in action without any plan B to escape after the action). This sacrificial dimension is clear for the Chechen who murdered a schoolteacher, and the Pakistani who attacked the former office of Charlie Hebdo: they did not refer to any jihad but to the “blasphemy” of the cartoons.
How to explain these changes? There are of course several factors. The heterogeneity of the profiles indicates the difference in age of the second generation of migrants from North Africa, who bore the brunt of the deculturation entailed by the migration process, but are now older. The “lone wolf” factor and the makeshift weapons indicate the inability of the “centrals” (AQ or ISIS) to mount professional and sophisticated attacks; by definition suicide attacks entail an attrition of fighting capacities in terms of manpower. We may also mention a decline, after ISIS’ defeat, of the great narrative of heroic jihad that fascinated so many young Europeans. There are certainly no “sleeping cells” because ISIS would have activated them when the “Califate” was fighting its last battle. The difficulty to mount efficient networks is also a consequence of the improvement of the efficiency of the police and intelligence services from different European countries, who collaborate and are able to better track the moves of terrorists from the Middle East to Europe (the last attack in Vienna shows that there are still some drawbacks).
But the shift from networks to lone wolves, if decreasing the lethality of each terrorist attack, is a real challenge for security forces: how to prevent or even just detect the would-be terrorists before their acting out? It is all the more important because the impact of these attacks on public opinion is considerable and pushes governments to announce new measures to fight radicalization. Nevertheless, the different policies of counter-radicalization (fighting political Islam, spotting any sudden show of devotion from young people) are not specific enough and target a too large segment of the population, making it very difficult to follow individual trajectories, due to the lack of police and intelligence manpower.
The real future threat, which still has not yet materialized, is whether the new jihad (especially in Africa) will have the same attraction for young Muslims in France the historical ones did (Afghanistan, Bosnia, Syria). For instance, countries like Mali also have an important diaspora in France. But interestingly enough there has been until now no connection between this diaspora and the Sahel jihad. It might be linked with some specific anthropological patterns of this diaspora (yet to be researched) but also to the possibility that the jihadi leaders in the Sahel drew lessons from the failure of ISIS: better to stay local than to go global, in order to avoid building a great military coalition that would destroy the local jihadi groups . If this supposition is true, it works in favour of the local jihadists: the low-intensity counterinsurgency in the Sahel is unable to roll back the local jihadi movements.