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Opinion

Why Islamic State targeted France instead of the U.S.

The chilling takeaway from Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris is that Islamic State has expanded its theater of operations beyond the Middle East. But that doesn’t mean the group is about to unleash a wave of attacks on the United States.

The Homeland Security Department said Friday it knows of “no specific or credible threats of an attack on the U.S. homeland.”

Until Friday, Islamic State had focused on seizing territory in the Middle East. Granted, its members have also attacked targets in Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt – but those are all countries bordering Islamic State’s homeland. And individual Islamic State sympathizers have attacked civilians in Europe, but never in an operation that large or complex. (The January attack on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo was carried out by followers of Al Qaeda, not Islamic State.)

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Why France? Analysts suggest two reasons.

First, Islamic State leaders have designated France as the European country they hate most.

“If you can kill a disbelieving American or European, especially the spiteful and filthy French … then kill him in any manner or way you can,” the group’s top spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, told supporters last year.

France has been an enthusiastic participant in the U.S.-led coalition that is bombarding Islamic State positions in Syria and Iraq. And French officials were among the first to adopt the insulting Arabic name “Daesh” for the group.

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Second, Islamic State has a practical reason to focus on France: With the largest Muslim  population in Western Europe, it has become Europe’s biggest potential source of Islamic State recruits. U.S. officials have said that only a few dozen Americans have made their way to Syria to join the group – compared with more than 500 French citizens.

When I interviewed French terrorism experts in Paris last summer, they told me Islamic State was deliberately trying to provoke anti-Muslim repression in France as part of a recruiting strategy.

“What they want is reprisals,” Jean-Pierre Filiu, a Middle East expert at Paris’ Institute of Political Sciences, told the radio network France Inter on Saturday. “They want us, in Paris and in France, to kill Muslims…. They want a civil war in France.”

None of this means that the United States is immune from danger; far from it. The Paris attack confirms that Islamic State’s threats of violence against the West should be taken seriously. But the most acute danger lies in France and other European countries, not here. 

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