Five days after the deadliest carnage on French soil since World War II, Parisians and the rest of the world are still reeling under the shock. They are finding it hard to come to terms with the fact that Paris has been hit for the second time this year. While irreverent atheist cartoonists and people of the Jewish faith were targets during January’s Charlie Hebdo attacks, this time it was ordinary people, enjoying an unusually balmy autumn evening out on a Friday, 13 November, who were singled out. Their only crime was eating and drinking together, watching football, or listening to a rock concert. Many of the 129 people dead and more than 300 injured were under 30, because the two arrondissements targeted, the 10th and 11th, close to the city centre, are a bohemian neighbourhood where mostly young people hang out.
The French authorities believe the very precise military-style attacks were carried out by eight assailants, several of whom were French nationals, working in three teams. Wearing suicide vests and armed with machine guns, they held a city to ransom for three long hours, prompting people to compare the attacks to 26/11 in Mumbai. Seven of the men died in the attacks, while a massive manhunt is underway for the eighth, Salah Abdeslam, a Belgian-born French national. For the first time since the London bombings in 2004, a very real sense of insecurity has gripped Europe. The distant wars of West Asia, triggered by 9/11 and dubbed by Pope Francis as a “piecemeal World War Three”, have landed on the West’s doorstep. And experts warn that this is only just the beginning of a new style of warfare that targets innocent civilians going about their lives in what we would like to think is the free world.
As Europe struggles to find solutions for the wave of refugees landing at its borders, the Paris attacks signal a clear assault on the cherished European values of freedom and democracy. It is also an assault on the European way of life that is clearly repugnant to those who stand for sectarian hate. Hours after the attack, the Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility, gloating over the havoc it had wreaked among “the Crusaders” and warning that this was only “the first of the storm” and that the targets had been carefully chosen.
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Calling Paris “the capital of prostitution and obscenity”, the group said France had been targeted because it was one of the countries that had carried out airstrikes against its members in Syria. Posted on Telegram, a messaging platform on the Internet, and translated by site, a service that monitors jihadi messages, the statement issued on Saturday morning warned more attacks were imminent. “Let France and those who walk in its path know that they will remain on the top of the list of targets of the Islamic State, and that the smell of death will never leave their noses as long as they lead the convoy of the Crusader campaign and dare to curse our Prophet,” the statement read.
“The war is now among us. We will resist, we will fight together,” wrote Francois Fillon, former Centre-Right prime minister, on Twitter.
In a rare display of unity, all of France’s parties decided to suspend their political campaigns and lauded President Francois Hollande’s decision to impose a state of Emergency in the country. Even before the full horror of the carnage had sunk in, Hollande swore that France would “lead a war which will be pitiless”. Though this is not the first time jihadi militants have carried out an attack on western soil, it marks a new phase for IS, which has now demonstrated its capability to hit beyond its traditional turf in West Asia.
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As the gory details and eyewitness accounts of the bloody attacks emerged, it is now evident that the carnage could have been a lot worse. The first target was the Stade de France in northern Paris, where 79,000 fans, including President Hollande, congregated on Friday night to watch a friendly football match between the national team and Germany. Thousands more watched the match on television across Europe, and when three distinct explosions reverberated across the stadium, between 9.20 and 9.25 pm, they could even be heard on TV. Fans cheered louder, thinking the sound came from firecrackers. A man wearing a suicide belt blew himself up after he was prevented from entering the stadium after a routine security check. After the first explosion, Hollande was told about the attacker, and being unsure how many more lurked outside, he took a snap decision to continue the game, before being ushered away to safety.