French soldiers taking part in Operation Sentinelle are the highest profile symbols of the fight against Islamic extremism — but along with other security forces patrolling French streets are increasingly the main targets of attacks.
Operation Sentinelle was created to guard prominent French sites after a string of deadly attacks in 2015. The soldiers' status as representatives, and defenders, of the state, has put security forces in the line of fire. But experts offer other reasons, too, for why attacks in France have recently focused on heavily armed protectors.
No civilians have been attacked this year — although intelligence services have foiled seven planned attacks, France's interior minister said recently. More than 230 people, many of them out for a night of fun, were killed in 2015 and 2016.
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The radicals may seek extra media visibility presumably afforded by going after emblematic targets or be tempted by the wish to die as a "martyr," several experts said. Or they may want to up assurance of redemption with an especially "heroic" act in the ultimate stage of a life spent mainly in delinquency in which security forces were the top enemy, the experts added.
Knives, machetes, hammers and vehicles have been used in the seven attacks this year — in each case against security forces — despite France's state of emergency. In the latest, on Wednesday, a BMW slammed into six soldiers as they left their barracks outside Paris for duty in what authorities said was a "deliberate" attack. The suspect, an Algerian living legally in France, was arrested after a highway manhunt and hospitalized with bullet wounds.
"We need to finally suppress the idea that there is a common profile for terrorists," said Alain Bauer, a leading criminologist and security expert. But, he added, attacking security forces is "a la mode" now in France.
In 2015 and 2016, soft targets were more common, after a Syrian who served the Islamic State group as its high-profile spokesman and strategist before being killed urged sympathizers in Europe and the U.S. to launch attacks against civilians — "especially the spiteful and filthy French." High-level attacks, from the November 2015 massacres in Paris to last year's Bastille Day truck attack in Nice, followed, with 216 dead.
This year, one person, a police officer on the crowded Champs-Elysees Avenue, has been killed. One attacker died in a second incident on the avenue after his car laden with weapons caught fire after he rammed it into a convoy of gendarmes.
Not all the attacks were claimed by ISIS, and like the attacker who plowed his car into the soldiers, not all were French. Except for Wednesday's car attack, the attackers chose tourist haunts — going after security forces, not the crowds.
A study released in March by the Center for Terrorism Analysis, or CAT, showed that France isn't alone. Attacks on security forces have been a constant in the West. Between 2013 and 2016, a majority — 53 percent — of 72 targeted attacks, either carried out, attempted or planned, were aimed at society's protectors. The study also showed that France, with the highest number of Western jihadis in Syria and Iraq, and largest Muslim population in Western Europe, was the most targeted Western country.
ISIS cites France's participation in the U.S.-led coalition when claiming attacks in the country.
"They want to die as martyrs," said Jean-Charles Brisard, president of the CAT center.
In November 2015, when teams of extremists stormed into Paris from Brussels and killed 130 people enjoying a weekend on the town, they "waited for intervention forces to arrive to die with weapons in their hands facing apostate forces," Brisard claimed.
For another expert, Alain Rodier, a former intelligence officer, many French Islamic extremists who go after symbols of the state had spent much of their lives doing just that as small-time delinquents. In France, youth in tough neighborhoods have notoriously bad relations with authorities in uniform and some delinquents who radicalize repeat old habits, he said.
"In reality, they've transferred what they did before," Rodier said. They are people who haven't traveled to combat zones and take action "on their own initiative," he said, adding that the notion of redemption also can also motivate the choice of targets. They are often fed by extremist preachers whose message is "the more heroic the action the more their sins are pardoned."
Wednesday's attack threw the spotlight on the Sentinelle force, currently 7,000-strong with half of its members posted in the Paris region. Some have questioned why soldiers are patrolling sensitive sights from train stations and airports to places of worship — when they have never stopped an assault since their deployment after attacks in January 2015 on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper and a Kosher grocery.
The soldiers are "a presence that reassures, protects," Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said Wednesday, but also symbols "and therefore direct targets."
They are also magnets for attacks, Bauer said.
The force's real purpose, Bauer said, is "just trying to convince your population that you're safe ... (and) let everybody go to work every day."
Be they soldiers, police or gendarmes — all of whom have been attacked this year — the crucial determinant is media attention, according to Bauer.
"Terrorism is about communication and violence," he said.