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The long shadow of the Saint-Michel terrorist attacks

Andreas Noll
July 25, 2020

Twenty-five years ago, France was shaken by a radical Islamist attack that inspired a new generation of terrorists. The trail also led to France's disadvantaged housing projects, putting them in the national focus.

Police and medics attend to victims of the 1995 terror attack on a Paris subway at Saint-Michel station
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/R. de la Mauviniere

The bomb went off in the heart of Paris at 5:30 p.m., the height of the post-workday rush hour. A giant fireball raced down the platform of the Saint-Michel–Notre-Dame metro station after a gas container filled with shrapnel exploded in a train car on the regional RER B line. The explosion killed eight people and injured more than 100, some critically.

As Prime Minister Alain Juppe and President Jacques Chirac rushed to the scene, they had no way of knowing that July 25, 1995, would mark just the first in the series of nationwide terror attacks.

Investigators were aware from early on that the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), a radical Islamist organization, was behind the terrorist act. With the bombing, the group had managed to bring the ongoing civil war in Algeria, a fight between Islamists and the military, to the country's former colonial ruler.

France mobilizes all its forces

The French government subsequently mobilized its entire security apparatus. From that point onward, thousands of police, soldiers and customs officers closely monitored critical hubs such as train stations and airports. Paris city officials had thousands of trash cans welded shut — or removed entirely.

A few weeks later, following a massive manhunt, police managed to capture the individuals behind the attack, all of whom were Algerian-born. The men had recruited Khaled Kelkal, who planted the bomb, from Lyon's banlieue — a socially disadvantaged housing project similar to those in other major cities across the country.

Kelkal emigrated from Algeria to France at the age of 2 with his family and attended school in eastern Lyon. He likely became radicalized while serving time in prison.

Kelkal, 24 at the time of the attack, was shot and killed near Lyon when police attempted to arrest him. The other members of the terror cell were convicted and given life sentences by French courts in the 2000s.

Kelkal's story brought the banlieues back into public focus in France. The first documented unrest in the disadvantaged outlying urban areas had taken place in summer 1981. After the Saint-Michel attack, the banlieues started to be seen as a possible breeding ground for terrorism.

France: Holy war behind bars

A direct line from Saint-Michel to Charlie Hebdo

On January 7, 2015, two decades after the 1995 Saint-Michel attacks, it became clear that homegrown terrorism remained a serious problem in France. On that day, two men attacked the editorial offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo , killing a total of 12 individuals. Like the Saint-Michel perpetrators, the two attackers, brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi, had Algerians roots — however, they were not immigrants but rather French-born.

One day after the Charlie Hebdo attack, Amedy Coulibaly, a young Frenchman of Malian descent — and a friend of the Kouachis — continued the wave of terror by shooting a police officer and taking multiple people hostage in a kosher supermarket in Paris. Coulibaly, 32, grew up in one of the most well-known Paris banlieues, La Grande Borne.

Read more: Emmanuel Macron leaves France's suburbs in the lurch

Coulibaly and Cherif Kouachi had been investigated by French police in 2010 for attempting to free Saint-Michel attacker Smain Ait Ali Belkacem from prison. In 2015, French authorities had no doubt: The perpetrators of the 1995 attack had helped radicalize a second and third generation of Islamists in France, both through networks and direct contact.

France cracks down on suspected Islamists

Burden of a colonial past

But where does the hate for the former colonial ruler come from?

Stefan Seidendorf, of the German-French Institute dfi in Ludwigsburg, sees the past as the key to answering this question. Unlike other colonies, Algeria was closely connected to France and was the only colony to be incorporated into mainland France and even divided into departements, the administrative regions used across France. 

The free travel and exchange that had naturally arisen between "France on both Mediterranean coasts" came to an end in 1962 with Algerian independence. Individuals of Algerian heritage who then wanted to remain in Europe had to put down permanent roots far from their country of origin.

It is possible to speak broadly of France's successful history of immigration, said Seidendorf, but many third or fourth-generation French citizens of Algerian heritage who speak only poor French, if any at all, continue to struggle with life in France.

"Many in this generation actually haven't been successful in securing the more interesting jobs in the labor market or enjoying the fulfillment of the Republic's promise of social advancement: The promise that things will be better for them than for their [immigrant] parents, that upward mobility can be achieved through education, regardless of heritage or material conditions, and that one can become part of the French Republic that way. This discrepancy between the promise and the reality is a large part of the problem," said Seidendorf.

What happened to the attackers?

Politics has so far been largely ineffective in solving the problem of integration. Despite governments of all different political leanings enacting numerous education and infrastructure programs for the banlieuessince the 1980s, the long-term economic prospects for inhabitants has not yet improved. Then there is also the desolate security situation. Most recently, protests during the coronavirus lockdown led to violent riots in these low-income housing projects.

Meanwhile, the masterminds of the 1995 attack remain in prison. Two months ago, a lawyer for Boualem Bensaid, who has spent 25 years behind bars, filed a request to have his client released and deported to Algeria. The courts have not yet made a decision, but observers except that the now 52-year-old man and other former members of the terror cell will remain in French prisons for years to come.

A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Boualem Bensaid. This has now been corrected.  The department apologizes for the error.