Why Terrorists Pick On the French

Bomb attacks increase even as terrorism worldwide hits a low

The woman in the plaid coat walked quickly up the escalator out of a Paris subway stop, a few blocks away from where a gas-canister bomb exploded during rush hour the evening before.

"This is it for me. I've had it. I'm quitting my job today. Public transport in Paris has just become too stressful. It took me an hour-and-a-half to get to work this morning, and I worried about a bomb the whole time. It's just not worth it," she said yesterday.

For many other Parisians, the bomb that ripped through Port Royal station at the edge of Paris's historic Latin Quarter on Tuesday had a sense of deja vu. Newspaper headlines announced the "Return of Terror" or, simply, "Barbarism!" Two people were killed and more than 100 wounded in the attack.

Parisians have borne more than their share of terrorist violence in the last year. Worldwide, however, the number of terrorist incidents is on the decline, and 1995 marked the lowest number of terrorist attacks since 1980, according to experts.

"Terrorist incidents [both internationally and in the US] have fallen to levels not seen since the 1970s," says Larry Johnson, a former CIA official who works on terrorism issues for the Virginia-based GBI Inc., an international consulting firm.

"Whether measured by the number of incidents, the number of fatalities, or the number of groups, raw statistics demonstrate that the level of terrorist violence has declined since the mid-1980s. In fact, the evidence suggests terrorism was more widespread and deadly 10 years ago," he says, citing data from the US Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

But it would be difficult to know that in Paris, where authorities have maintained a strong police presence since a three-month wave of terrorist bombings that began in August 1995.

"France is becoming the sick man of Europe when it comes to terrorism," wrote commentator Franz-Olivier Giesbert in the conservative daily Le Figaro after the Tuesday attack. "It's always when you think you're about done with something that it comes back.... What's needed now is to fight this internal enemy to the last man. No soul-searching, and no discussion," he concluded.

French authorities are anticipating new attacks. By yesterday morning, subway authorities had tacked up a new series of posters warning passengers to stay alert, signal any abandoned packages, and cooperate with identity checks and searches. Teams of security guards checked packages at subway entrances.

The gas-canister bomb used in the attack resembled those used in bombings in French cities last year. The 1995 attacks, which killed eight and wounded 151, were attributed to the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which has been waging a civil war against Algeria's military-backed regime. The GIA blames France for its support of the Algerian government.

Last week's constitutional referendum in Algeria, a former French colony, banned Islamic political parties from future elections. Islamic groups said the government falsified the results.

France has been a target for terrorists because of its long colonial ties in North Africa and the Middle East, say terrorism experts. "This latest attack appears designed to punish France for an [Algerian] referendum many authorities say was rigged," says Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at Scotland's St. Andrews University.

"More than any other nation, France has continued to support the Algerian government, earning France the opprobrium of opposition groups," he says.

AS in the 1995 attacks, there was no warning, no claim of responsibility, and the timing and location of the bomb appeared designed to injure large numbers of people. The Port Royal subway station is at the edge of a beautiful old neighborhood with many universities and outdoor cafes. Three other bombs were set off last year in or near this popular tourist area.

There was also a quick response from public authorities. Paris has one of the most carefully prepared antiterrorist response plans in the world, according to terrorist experts. Police, ambulances, and fire trucks were on the scene within minutes, and leading national politicians nearly beat television crews to the site.

Minutes after the blast, French Prime Minister Alain Juppe reinstated Operation Vigipirate, the antiterrorist plan launched during last year's bombings.

Vigipirate put thousands of riot police and troops in the streets and at main transportation points. Last year's campaign resulted in millions of identity checks and hundreds of arrests and expulsions. Nearly 230 Islamic militants are serving time in French prisons.

French authorities also reinstated border controls, which had been removed to conform with European agreements. Train stations and airports were put on alert.

France has also weathered bombing attacks from Corsican separatists, who recently resumed violence after secret talks with the government apparently collapsed. Most previous attacks have been against public buildings in Corsica, but separatists have vowed to take their campaign to the French mainland. They claim responsibility for bombing a government tax office in the south of France, also on Tuesday.

But for Parisian Alphose Mamouzebi, who works at a newsstand near the blast, the only response to terrorism is courage. "It's important not to show fear, otherwise the terrorists will have won," he says.

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