On 13 October, a French teacher Dominique Bernard in Arras, France, was stabbed to death. Two other school workers were also stabbed and wounded. The attacker, a former student of the school, had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and expressed “his hatred for France, for the French, for democracy and the education he benefitted from in our country”. He had a Fiche S and the Direction générale de la Sécurité intérieure, (General Directorate for Internal Security, DGSI) had, among other things, intercepted his telephone conversations. The suspect’s younger brother is currently detained for links to militant Islamist networks and glorifying acts of terror. On 12 October 2023, French police arrested him following his suspicious behaviour, but showed no signs of planning an attack.
The French Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, later described a link between the attack and the Israel-Hamas conflict, even as another French police source challenged this. While the connection is this case is currently disputed, other governments in Europe have nonetheless recently raised their threat level, while some have made the link between the Israel-Hamas conflict and the risk of potential future attacks. There appears to be a growing concern that the activities between Israel and Hamas, which are also impacting both Israeli and Palestinian civilians, could spur violence outside of the region. This is particularly acute as Hamas’ former chief recently called for mobilization of citizens in countries in the region, and stated “To all scholars who teach jihad… to all who teach and learn, this is a moment for the application (of theories).”
This Analysis discusses whether Hamas has made calls for attacks before, particularly in Europe. It also considers if this call by Hamas resonates with previous calls to transnational jihad by other jihadist actors.
Hamas – a limited historical focus on France
In the past, Hamas has largely made calls for protest against Israel (cf. first and second intifada) but did not make calls for transnational jihad in their founding charter. Despite numerous attacks in France from various groups during the period between 1975 and 1985, Hamas did not perpetrate nor claim any of those attacks. Some of the Palestinian-linked organisations who have historically made claims of responsibility in this period against France include: the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Hezbollah, the Abu Nidal Organisation, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Lebanese Armed Revolutionary Faction, and Islamic Jihad.i
Following France’s support to Iraq during the Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988) and France’s refusal to ratify the de facto domination of Hezbollah over part of Lebanon in 1985, marked France as an indirect enemy of Iran. In Lebanon, France sought to play on the rivalries between Hezbollah, the PLO, Fatah, the pro-Syrian Palestinians, and the Druze to block Hezbollah’s progression. Hezbollah’s opposition to France manifested in several attacks and hostage-taking between December 1985 and September 1986.
There is currently no evidence to assert that Hezbollah’s historical attacks were part of a coordinated strategy against France, and these attacks currently have no direct links to Hamas. There is also no historical record of Hamas attacking (successfully or unsuccessfully) or claiming an attack in France. Yet there are concerns that Hamas’ call to jihad may inspire some who already support jihadist actions in other regions, including those in Europe.
Reacting to Hamas or a continuation of recent jihadist trends?
There has, however, been a more recent spate of attacks by various Islamist actors in France, which has largely been driven by ISIS, or in response to what perpetrators considered acts of ‘blasphemy’ conducted by French citizens. For example, the 13 October 2023 attack comes three years after the murder of Samuel Paty, a 47-year-old history and geography teacher. Paty was killed then beheaded with a cleaver wielded by an 18-year-old outside his school in the Paris suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, on 16 October 2020. Paty had shown his class Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. Following this class, social media posts by a student criticizing Paty had gone viral. The attacker posted online a photo of the incident and a message claiming to have killed Paty as vengeance for having “dared to belittle Mohammed”.
During the period of the so-called ISIS caliphate from 2014 to 2019 France saw a peak in terrorist attacks and plots. Some major attacks include the Charlie Hebdo attack on 7, 8 and 9 January 2015, the Bataclan and Stade de France attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015, the Nice truck ramming attack on 14 July 2016, and the Strasbourg Christmas market attack on 11 December 2018. Foiled plots also include the attempted shooting in the Thalys train on 21 August 2015 and the failed plot to detonate bombs in Notre Dame on 4 September 2016.
While mainly perpetrated by members or supporters of ISIS, some attacks also had links to al-Qaeda. Furthermore, the number of engaged/radicalised individuals in France has increased dramatically throughout this period and the exact number will never be known. However, France’s initial response to these attacks has been through administrative measures and repression rather than a soft P/CVE approach. In late 2015, France began a deradicalisation program following a flawed theoretical underpinning. Towards 2017, France began changing its approach to disengagement and deradicalisation. Nevertheless, these efforts were only aimed at imprisoned individuals and returnees from Syria and Iraq. No efforts have been made, nor a strategy developed, towards those with a Fiche S, nor in general.
There is thus a concern about a large number of radicalized persons in France who have not been sufficiently addressed, and the lull of attacks since the fall of ISIS so-called caliphate has perhaps given France a false sense of security vis-à-vis Islamist terrorism. While the 13 October attacker appears to have reacted independently of this call to jihad, there are many individuals considered at risk who may not differentiate between the underlying ideologies of unique organisations. Hamas and ISIS are both part of the militant jihadi movement, but their ideological or organizational differences distinguish them. However, to an individual that engaged in the militant Salafi-jihadi movement during the 2014-2019 period, a period in which ideological differences were not always clear to engaged individuals, a call to jihad may transcend organisational affiliation. Consider the Charlie Hebdo attacks of January 2015: Saïd and Chérif Kouachi identified themselves as belonging to Al-Qaeda in Yemen, while Amedy Coulibaly pledged allegiance to ISIS.ii At this time, ISIS and al-Qaeda were enemies in Syria and elsewhere – and still are. Yet in France, members that pledged allegiance to these competing organisations had joined forces under a broader jihadist banner as the call to avenge the Prophet Mohammed transcended ideologies of individual militant jihadi organisations and resonated across the militant jihadi movements and actors.
Jihadist groups themselves appear to be capitalizing on this. A week after the 13 October attack, ISIS published an editorial on the war in Israel entitled: “Practical steps to fight the jews”, wherein ISIS expanded the call to target Israel, Jewish people and symbols, and allies to Israel (i.e. the West) around the world. This is a clear indication that even if organisations within the militant jihadi movement have different ideologies, they can feed off (the actions) of one another and potentially capitalize on grievances and calls for action being driven by this current conflict.
During the period of ISIS so-called caliphate, a large number of people began a pathway towards engagement/radicalisation, including many in Europe. As France did not address these pathways sufficiently, many of these individuals have not disengaged nor deradicalized. Engagement with these militant jihadi organisations can be fluid, and their ideologies share some common ground. As such, the call to jihad from one organisation may be used by any engaged/radicalised individual to undertake an attack - the individual does not need to have formerly pledged allegiance to a specific group.
Even as Hamas has not targeted France historically, Hamas’ call to jihad may nonetheless have an impact in France. This may occur, not through its network and direct supporters, but through individuals engaged with other militant jihadi organisations who share common ideological grounds, and even those who may be isolated or lone actors. The situation seen in France is not so different then seen elsewhere in Europe, and practitioners should pay attention to how this current conflict is responded to by those who have been involved in jihadism historically, or may be willing to take up the jihadist cause in response to Hamas’ call.