The world has turned upside down. A few years ago, it was common for Europeans to lecture Americans on how badly Washington had mishandled global terrorism. Terrorists should be treated as criminals, they said. The war metaphor was simply not appropriate.
Fast forward to this Thursday. French interior minister Manuel Valls was in town, meeting with Attorney General Eric Holder, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and FBI Director Robert Mueller, to talk all things terrorism. “There is a link between the interior and the exterior enemy,” he acknowledged. Defeating domestic and transnational terrorism was part of the same fight. That tone sounds very different from past, petulant pronouncements issued from Brussels.
Meanwhile, President Obama sounded positively European in his State of Terrorism address at the National Defense University. He declared the core of Al Qaeda all but dead. For the most part, he asserted, the spin-off Al Qaeda franchises were not our problem.
A reporter asked Valls for his assessment of Obama’s speech. “Here is my answer,” Valls responded. “It will last a long time. I don't know if it’s global, regional or local, but the war against terrorism is far from being over.”
The French minister said he had a list of “monumental” concerns . . . and number one on his list is Syria. Whether Al Qaeda or Assad wins—or if the battle spreads into a larger, regional Shia-Sunni civil war—France is the loser, he implied. The implication: Paris is more than ready to help arm the Free Syrian Army to keep them from losing.
Valls acknowledged the risk of weapons winding up in the hands of Al Qaeda, but—he shrugged—what’s the alternative? A no-fly zone, he said, was too risky. Boots on the ground? Unthinkable. The only solution, Valls suggested, was to keep the freedom fighters in the fight and press them to “triage”—in other words, purge—the hard-core Islamists from their own ranks.
Valls was equally worried about the blowback from the fighting in Syria on France. Foreign fighters from Europe (about six hundred, he estimated) have flooded into Syria in the last twelve months. That’s almost 60 percent of the number that went to fight in Afghanistan over a thirteen-year period. These foreign fighters hail from many European nations—Belgium, England, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Spain and Italy—but nearly a quarter (some 140 fighters) come from France.
Not far behind his list of worries was the domestic threat from self-radicalization. “We arrested youths in Southern France,” he stated, “they had an Al Qaeda flag in their window. They had almost no knowledge of Islam, but they were assembling a bomb.”
Finally, he warned that Al Qaeda is far from vanquished. “The Sahel is the frontline in the war against Al Qaeda,” he insisted. That is why France fought in Mali.
Valls’ assessment of the terrorism threat is certainly more dire than what one gets from most high-level U.S. officials. And his valuation and defense of American counterterrorism tools sounds more robust than what one hears from the White House. When asked if U.S. drone strikes just create more terrorists, Valls said he saw no proof of that. Asked about NSA surveillance activities, he sounded kind of envious of the agency. Rather than being severely critical of U.S. intelligence operations, he said he wished France had more capabilities like the United States—both in terms of the ability to intercept critical terrorist communications and to protect individual privacy through parliamentary and judicial oversight.
Today it appears that Paris takes the war on terrorism more seriously than does the White House. And that’s something to worry about. While the rest of the free world is finally waking up to seriousness of this threat, President Obama often seems inclined to dismiss it as a thing of the past.
-James Jay Carafano is vice president of defense and foreign policy studies at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The National Interest