Saturday, November 05, 2005

The French government is having an inordinately difficult time suppressing riots and arson which are spreading like inkblots of disorder throughout French urban areas. Organization, coordination and pre-planning have been suspected in the rioting that began in predominantly Arab-Muslim and North African suburban ghettos but not concretely proven until the discovery today of a gasoline bomb making safe house in Paris. At this point, it is now time to set aside the comforting conceit of out of control "youths". Amidst the far more numerous opportunistic rioters, France has its own urban, Islamist, insurgency. One that is well-disciplined, experienced, ideologically committed and highly mobile.

France has a tradition of providing asylum to foreign political dissidents that reaches back two centuries. Today that open door includes Islamist extremists the way the doors of the Republic once opened for Eastern European anarchists, antifascist refugees fleeing Hitler and Franco and 1960's Third World revolutionaries who lionized Franz Fanon. Ayatollah Khomeini directed his 1979 revolution from Paris and his regime's agents assassinated Shahpour Bakhtiar there in 1991 the way Stalin's OGPU once iced White Russian emigres in cafes and coffee houses. In the French Muslim community, there exist those with ties to the GIA, Call to Combat, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Hezbollah, various Palestinian factions and other groups more obscure (Chirac has been particularly ingratiating in terms of policy toward Arab-Muslim extremists in Lebanon and among the Palestinians). If these organizations are there, then so is al Qaida.

I think it would be a serious error to conclude that such a movement is very large in terms of numbers. One byproduct of sheltering the planet's political misfits is that French counterintelligence, both police and state security, is very, very, good . Moreover, with 10 % of the French population coming from Muslim ethnic groups in former French colonies, the language skills and cultural intelligence capabilities are there for French security services in a way the United States can only envy. If these insurgents were numerous they would have been penetrated already. So their elusiveness speaks to the insurgents being a small, tightly-compartmentalized but decentralized network of cells, quite possibly less than 100 people.

The reason the hard core of insurgents directing the rioting in French cities do not need to be numerous is that mob psychology is such that they can rely on being just a spark, rather than a flame:

"Conversely, a crowd is not an incipient riot merely because it assembles a great many people with the predisposing demographic characteristics. For example, every Fourth of July in Chicago's Grant Park there is a fireworks display that usually attracts about a million spectators. In certain parts of the grounds, people are packed together like sardines, so that individuals substantially lose their ability to decide where to go. One goes where the crowd goes. Going against it is impossible, and even leaving it (unless one is near the edge) may be difficult. Some people dislike the experience, but whatever its discomforts, the Fourth of July crowd at Grant Park is not a riot in the making. The crowd is big, it is loud, it is unmanageable, it is filled with people who have suffered from racial discrimination and economic deprivation, it has, in aggregate, drunk a lot of beer (which is legally for sale at dozens of kiosks at the event); but it is only a crowd, not an incipient riot.

...For a riot to begin, it is necessary but not sufficient that there be many people who want to riot and who believe that others want to riot too. One more hurdle has to be overcome. Even in an unstable gathering, the first perpetrator of a misdemeanor is at risk if the police are willing and able to zero in on him. Thus, someone has to serve as a catalyst--a sort of entrepreneur to get things going--in Buford's account usually by breaking a window (a signal that can be heard by many who do not see it).

...The entrepreneur will throw the first stone when he calculates that the risk that he will be apprehended for doing so has diminished to an acceptable level. The risk of arrest declines as a function of two variables--the size of the crowd relative to the police force available to control it, and the probability that others will follow if somebody leads. This latter point could potentially be tricky, because as we have noted, crowds will generally be inhospitable to the commission of violent acts. But it is possible for a crowd to telegraph its willingness to riot. Buford's account (1991: 81n-dash85) of a soccer hooligan rampage in Turin furnishes an example. Members of the crowd marched themselves around in a spontaneous formation with a stilted, unnatural gait, chanting the name of their team. This unmistakable token of cohesion stopped well short of anything that the Italian police could plausibly charge as solicitation or incitement, but served to assure the members of the crowd that a critical mass had formed.

Sometimes a crowd will not clearly commit itself to riot, and in such instances an entrepreneur will take more of a risk getting things started. But if he has done his implicit calculations properly, once the first plate-glass window is broken, the looting will begin and will spread and continue until the civil authorities muster enough force to make the rioters believe that they once again face a realistic prospect of arrest."

Why is this happening in France today ? Counterpressure. The French government has asserted itself against Islamist ideological encroachment by banning headscarves, attempting to root Salafi radical imams from the mosques, it has squeezed Syria over Lebanon ( and thus Hezbollah) and is " siding" with the U.S. over the Iranian nuclear program. Both Sunni and Shiite radicals have reasons to see a humiliating French retreat on issues of French internal security as a strategic victory for radical Islamism - another " 3-11", as it were.

These Islamist insurgents probably do not have the goal, as did the '68 leftist radicals, of topping the government itself; with only 10 % of the French population being Muslim, and few of these being Islamist, the backlash from causing a serious systemic disruption would be severe. Too many Frenchmen are veterans of Algeria, are descended from Pied Noirs or subscribe to a culturally conservative Gallic nationalism that looks with loathing at Islam. As John Robb wrote yesterday regarding 4GW forces that overreach:

"Complete collapse would create total war (via a bloody civil war). A complete urban/country takedown would prompt the state to launch a total war. This is a type of warfare that global guerrillas are not prepared or able to fight (in contrast, states are well suited to this). By keeping the level of damage below what would be considered fatal to the state, total war is avoided. "

( Note: Robb has his own analysis of the insurgency in France up this morning and a further explanation why insurgents have, so far, minimized loss of life)

What the insurgents are trying to accomplish, in my view, is to demonstrate their potential strength to the key decision-making officials in Chirac's administration and " punish" them for policies they view as anti-Islam. In the short and medium term, the insurgents would like to secure a modus vivendi that allows the radicals a free hand in the ghettos to oppress their own and a further distancing between France and the United States on Mideast questions. After the LePen phenomenon, it is questionable how much political room Chirac, Sarkozy and Villepin have for such concessions, even if they wanted to make them - which would also run into fierce resistance from top level civil servants in the police and security services.


More analysis on rioting in France is being offered by Dave at The Glittering Eye ( also here and here), the now semi-ubiquitous praktike at Liberals Against Terrorism and
Armed Liberal at Winds of Change.


Collounsbury thinks I'm a blithering idiot. Dr. Barnett sees the solution in a French Islamist Party.
I do not particularly trust John Robb's objectivity. I think he's committed himself psychologically to the narrative that we're losing in Iraq and this brings him to a more pessimistic view of Islamic insurgencies than is warranted.
Hi TM,

I too ascribed pessimism to Robb's viewpoint vis-a-vis Barnett's optimism in a post a while back. Robb posted the next day in reference to Tom's review of his op-ed that he too was ultimately optimistic.

Robb's intellectual focus on his blogs seem to be offensive ( guerilla) tactics and strategy rather than defensive ( state actor). Perhaps he has defensive and thus optimistic concepts that Robb shares primarily with clients. Or is saving for his book. I'm not as familiar with all his theories the way we are with PNM

In any event John Robb's a burst of sunshine on Iraq next to William Lind ;o)
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