As the horrors of another terrorist massacre unfolded on the streets of Nice, France amidst the Bastille Day celebrations of July 14th, 2016, many in the West have asked, "why France again?"
ISIS has not limited its attacks to Western Europe and just weeks before, Atatürk Airport in Turkey was the site of a bombing that claimed the lives of 45 and injured 230. Bangladesh, too, saw a thwarted attack on a gathering of Muslims at prayer only days before the attack on Nice. Even Saudia Arabia experienced major terrorist attacks on religious sites around the same time.
Whereas it is true that ISIS has increasingly become a global threat that has been quick to bring Islamic terrorist groups in other countries into its so-called "Caliphate", France has been its target of choice in Western Europe. Understanding why has much to do with understanding both the nature of ISIS and its core ambitions as well as the fertile ground for Islamic extremism that France has become.
Experts on ISIS make a distinction in the group's aims between that of global conquest under Sharia law and a desire for a religious apocalypse that will bring about the end of the world. Many times, the two goals do not align but war with France can be seen to serve both objectives.
The attacks on France did not begin with the coordinated massacre of November, 2015 in Paris, nor even in January of that year with the attack on Charlie Hebdo. The evil of terrorist violence has been steadily growing with many smaller attacks between each massacre. Let's examine why France is the target more than other Western European countries.
Twisted concepts of honor and history are central to the beliefs of ISIS. France was central to the fighting of the Crusades, an historical fact that still resonates with a people desperate to see the history of the world as a conflict between Islam and the West.
France has actually been more active in fighting ISIS than most European nations by launching air strikes in September, 2014 and using ground troops to help the African country of Mali fight off Islamic militants in 2015. France has specifically named violent Islamic ideology as the evil it must eradicate, a step that other "progressive" European nations have been reluctant to do.
These actions feed into the world war narrative that ISIS tries to perpetuate. Further attacks on either side reinforce this view of ISIS as the Islamic State waging war on France, the crusader nation. Serving the more apocalyptic goals of the terrorist organization, goading France into committing ground forces brings it closer to its final battle with Rome.
French philosophy has embraced secularism since the Enlightenment period and the French revolution. France famously banned all religious clothing in public schools, including both Jewish yarmulkes and all forms of Muslim head scarves such as the niqab and the hijab, as a part of what is known as laïcité, or a policy of secularism.
Islam itself, and ISIS more particularly, sees an inextricable link between religion and the State, so the philosophy of laïcité runs counter to ISIS ideology and must be eliminated. France, and especially Paris, also hold great value as symbols of culture, enlightenment, fashion and beauty in the same way New York City served as a symbol for the United States on September 11th, 2001.
French demographics have made the country an enticing target as well. In a measure intended to avoid discrimination, French law prohibited collecting data on both race and religion, a fact which made tracking demographic changes difficult. The law was recently relaxed, but it is still not easy to determine how many Muslim immigrants are living in France. Estimates now range from 4 million to 7.5 million (11.7% of the population).
The word for the slums filled with largely Muslim immigrants, banlieues, has become a common pejorative. Native French populations have a declining birthrate while both Muslim and immigrant populations are exploding, yet failing to rise out of poverty.
A Muslim boy in a poorly educated banlieue is exposed to drugs, crime and Islamic propaganda that paints him as the victim of the West with ISIS as his only salvation. To these oppressed masses, ISIS promises the chance "to remove the garments of dishonor, and shake off the dust of humiliation and disgrace, for the era of lamenting and moaning has gone and the dawn of honor has emerged anew".
"The sun of jihad has risen," according to one propaganda message. French surveillance data estimates that 1,550 French citizens have left France to join ISIS and they have identified 11,400 French citizens within the country as radical Islamists, though it is impossible to know the true number.
In an alarming statistic, 25.5% of French youths identify as Muslim now. As a source of recruits, millions of unassimilated young men, not all of them recent immigrants, are ideal for provoking what ISIS hopes will be backlash from the West.
ISIS hopes that terrorist attacks within France will cause increased pressure on the French Muslim community which will lead to further radicalism and pull France deeper into a war that feeds the global ambitions of ISIS.
Germany, Sweden and England all have problems with burgeoning populations of Muslim immigrants, but nowhere have they been shunted into such isolated and impoverished enclaves ripe for radical ideology as in France. A recent PBS report points out that "with the Paris attack, ISIS appears to be following the recommendations spelled out in the jihadi text, 'The Management of Savagery,' which outlines a specific psychological campaign designed to provoke enemies into the same simplistic thinking that dominates jihadist thought. The growing anti-Muslim sentiment in France would thus be one of the goals of the attack."
France has become the focus of ISIS attacks in an effort to bring the West into a larger conflict but also to inspire support from disenfranchised French Muslims who feel oppressed and hopeless.
Further attacks on France feed into a brutal ideology of conquest that seeks to unite religion and politics under a global Islamic caliphate. Thus, France is both a powerful symbol of secular Western thought and an inviting target for terrorists who seek to inspire greater acts of depravity and violence.