On July 26, while America was distracted by the nomination of Hillary Clinton and the continuing disgruntlement of the Bernie-or-Bust faction, terror in Europe took an ominous new turn. An 85-year-old Catholic priest was murdered in front of his altar and members of his congregation by two young terrorists whom ISIS immediately claimed as its “soldiers.” One of the attackers, 18-year-old Adel Kermiche, had reportedly attempted on two occasions to join ISIS forces in Syria, for which he was arrested and placed under electronic surveillance by French security forces. Why his electronic bracelet failed to prevent the attack will surely be a matter of great concern to investigators.
Not only does the church killing in Saint-Etienne-du-Vouvray, a suburb of Rouen in Normandy, come less than two weeks after the Bastille Day slaughter by truck in Nice, it also follows two weeks of indiscriminate attacks in Germany: An attack on train passengers by an axe-wielding terrorist, a machete attack in Reutlingen, a shooting incident in Munich (by a German-Iranian disciple of white supremacist murderer Anders Breivik), and finally a bombing outside a rock concert in Ansbach, apparently the work of a Syrian refugee who had sought and been denied political asylum.
After the terror attacks in and around Paris on November 13, 2015, I wrote in these pages what I had been told by an Algerian writer: ISIS, he said, had adopted the tactics of the Algerian liberation movement of the 1960s, shifting its attention from well-defended government facilities to softer targets such as theaters and restaurants. Soon, he predicted, the focus would shift to still softer targets in smaller towns, where police and military forces were less concentrated. His forecast seems to have been borne out in recent months.
Terrorism of this sort is almost impossible to defend against (although, as previously noted, one suspect in Saint-Etienne was known to authorities and should have been under close watch, given his past activities). The death toll in these scattered attacks may be small, but their number and frequency suggests an endless supply of eager martyrs and a determination to send a message that no one in Europe should feel safe.
The political response to the Saint-Etienne attack has thus far been predictable. President Hollande again insisted that ISIS had “declared war” on France but gave no clear indication of proposed countermeasures. The leader of the opposition, former President Nicolas Sarkozy, amped up his attacks on the government: “We must be pitiless. Enough of legal niceties, precautions, and alibis for partial measures.” Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, already under criticism for allegedly attempting to pressure a policewoman into altering her testimony about the Nice events (he denies any interference), joined the president on the scene and urged the French people to show “solidarity” in the face of an evident attempt to sow discord between religious groups.
Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National, remained true to form, blaming “all those who have governed us for the past 30 years.” Her niece, FN deputy Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, said that “they are killing our children, murdering our policemen, and cutting the throats of our priests. Wake up!”
What comes next is impossible to predict. Both France and Germany have been deeply unsettled by the relentless series of attacks. The pressure to respond is mounting. The center may not hold.