Images from lower Manhattan are what are emblazoned in our minds when the words “hijacked commercial flight by radical islamists” come to mind. Yet, L’Assaut (The Assault), a 2010 French film, reminds us that this was not the first time that this scenario had played out. A practice run targeting the Eiffel Tower had already taken place seven years before 9/11.
The film dramatizes the Christmas Eve hijacking of an Air France flight headed for Paris on the tarmac at Algiers’ Houari Boumediene Airport. The hijackers demand the release of two of their apprehended brothers-in-arms in the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria (GIA). The ordeal starts on Christmas Eve and the 270 or so people on board end up spending the next few days confined to the plane and then finally headed for France where the hijackers planned to blow up the plane above the Eiffel Tower.
The film makes unconcious and intentional commentary though its charactersson Arab masculinities, and their tense link to the French state and the West more broadly. The passengers are mostly Algerian, yet, their fears are less important than the bigger prize of striking terror into the hearts of the French and the Western world. This hijacking is also justified as a brotherly act of loyalty to their detained militia brethren. There is a representation here of young arab men as frustrated by the French state and indeed their own government which they appear to view as treacherous. Algerian policemen who try to seize back control of the flight are chided as traitors before they come under a hail of bullets.
As the drama unfolds we are also invited to see and imagine the French official response to the unfolding crisis. What is arguably interesting to note is the disconnect between the radical religious and brotherly loyalty justifications of the hijackers and the tools of foreign policy and national security used to prepare and respond to the attack.
As the flight is being hijacked, we see images of French national guard agents abseiling, doing push ups and working out to be in good physical form. This comes in handy later once the flight touches down in Marseille and is liberated by these fit French soldiers.
However, while the flight doesn’t make it to Paris because the immediate threat is neutralized by French forces, the deeper roots of the anger that fueled the incidence remained. These terrorists had been stopped but the national security threat was arguably only fuelled. If the attack was rooted in the grievances of angered and emasculated men finding justification to cede to their anger in scripture, then neutralization of the flight only a temporary solution.
It is an example of what International Relations scholars enjoy calling non-traditional security threats. Yet, the tools used (guns and brute force) to confront violent extreme radicalism seemed to only delay the eruption of simmering male resentment against the West.
Other films in the early 2000s returned to this theme of masculine aggression and frustration fueling violent religious fundamentalism (and the impotence of traditional modes of approaching national security). Secrét Defense shows radicalism born in French prisons, the outskirts of French large cities, and in the hearts of men who felt slighted by policies that forced their sisters, mothers and wives to remove their headscarves. Foreign policy responses are depicted as blunt and disorganized: old technocrats are depicted pushing reams of administrative forms even as the national security threat grows on their doorstep in young men growing increasingly angry.
More recently, the television series Le bureau des legendes returns to post 9/11 terrorism,but this time in the 2010s. In one storyline, an otherwise intelligent, chess playing Frenchman of North African origins joins the so-called Islamic State, angry and disillusioned by what he felt as a systemic exclusion from ‘the system’.
French filmmaker Alain Brigand in his 2002 film 11’09″01, a collection of shorts, approaches September the 11th, 2001 from various parts of the world. Once again, a discernible theme is the inadequacy of traditional tools to tackling an international security problems in a world were resentment increasingly poses a threat to international security.
One could argue that this frustration and anger fueled the terror attacks in Paris and Nice in the secodn half of the 2010s. In essence, the same, unresolved emotions of frustration and anger that drove the Air France hijacking in Algiers had not dispapered after successfully overpowering the hijackers. The anger grew elsewhere: 9/11 was arguably evidence of the continued anger at the West.
Traditional foreign policies and state responses to terrorism are ill-equipped to operate at this level of emotion, if these fictional films are to be taken as reflective of real world foreign policy in any way. They suggest that the work of combatting terrorism and avoiding future attacks will need serious engagement with the feelings of disenchanted and disillusioned young men.
There is plenty of room to imagine what foreign policy and national security policies woud look like if they were to be more attentive to emotion. They would probably not be predicated on perpetuating cycles of punishment, attacking minority religious and racial groups, or promoting xenophobic nationalistic politics.
Jennifer S Lerner, of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, speaks of “improving national security through research on emotions.” She points to the apparent – that terrorism by definition operates by triggering feelings of fear. She also makes the case for national security policymakers to pay greater attention to the growing field of work on emotions and decision making.1
She poses questions that would enrich any reflection on how to craft national security policies meant to manage the effects of angry young men who would commit acts of terror. Among them are questions about how to teach what she calls “emotion regulation skills” at national scale “so that citizens can respond optimally in a crisis”.
She also asks “What are the best ways to build resilience in response to terrorism?. Apart from her questions, it may also be interesting to delve into questions about how to regulate fear and anger in potential perpetrators of terror (or are we to resign to the assumption that “boys will be boys?)
It’s encouraging to see a growing body of work in International Relations on emotions and their role in world politics and national security. 2 One hopes that this scholarship will translate into concrete policy practice.
1 See Lerner’s paper Improving national security through research on emotion and decision making.
2 See Emma Hutchinson’s 2018 paper and the references in Why Study Emotions in International Relations.