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The Strategic Context of the Paris Attacks

Nov. 16. 2015 The terrorist attacks in Paris indicate a new level of sophistication in Islamic State’s planning and coordination.

|June 14, 2017

Reality Check

By George Friedman

The attacks in Paris on Friday night were part of a long-term pattern of occasional terrorist attacks by jihadists on targets in Europe. In the European context this stood out for two reasons. First, the scale of the attack was substantially larger than other attacks both in the number of participants and the number of casualties. Second, it was different in the level of sophistication and planning. Securing weapons and explosives, gathering at least three teams, identifying the targets and the manner in which these targets were to be attacked involved fairly complex logistics, intelligence and above all coordination.

Most impressive was their counter-intelligence and security. There were at least seven attackers and additional support personnel to secure weapons, gather information and help them hide out in preparation for the attack. No one detected them. The large majority of attacks are detected and disrupted prior to execution by European and American intelligence services, using information, communications intercepts and the other tools available to them. No one detected this group, indicating that the group, or at least its leaders, were aware of the methods used to detect raids and evaded them. Lone wolves evade detection being lone wolves. These attacks required coordination and support. Their communications, movement and surveillance should have been detected. They weren’t. That means there was a degree of training that could only be obtained through a more sophisticated group like Islamic State.

Obviously, it was not unprecedented since the 9/11 attacks on the United States were an order of magnitude more successful and more complex. But in the European context, a simultaneous attack on three targets causing well over 100 casualties created a new reality. Yet, given the number of operatives, the targets and the ability to evade French and other intelligence, there are elements in Paris that remind us of the 9/11 attacks.

It is noteworthy that Islamic State took credit for the attacks because such attacks are not normally directly ordered by IS. Terrorist attacks on Europe or the United States designed to create maximum casualties were the modus operandi of al-Qaida. IS has generally focused on taking and holding ground in Syria and Iraq. They were capable of terror attacks but their focus was on creating the caliphate, a territory ruled under their interpretation of Sharia, rather than on terror attacks. Within the context of more conventional warfare, they sometimes carried out terror attacks against enemy villages or positions. And they did encourage “lone wolves,” individual jihadists not directly connected to any group, to take the initiative in carrying out their own attacks. However, an attack of this sort, claimed quickly by IS, implying prior knowledge and involvement, represents a shift in strategy by IS.

This was not an operation thrown together in a few days. The planning for the attacks, assuming that explosives and weapons had been secured, probably began no later than Oct. 1, 2015. We emphasize again that the risk of detection of an operation so long in planning is high and we should bear this in mind as we turn to the strategy.

When we go back to the days surrounding Oct. 1, there are two things that stand out. First, the French began bombing targets in Syria on Sept. 27 and on Oct. 8 it attacked Raqqa, the unofficial capital of IS. A few weeks later, on Nov. 5, the French announced they were going to deploy their aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, to the eastern Mediterranean to boost its efforts against IS. The French have a longstanding interest in Syria, given that after World War II it was part of a League of Nations mandate granted France. Since then, as it has in many of its former colonies, the French have maintained a long-term desire to influence Syrian politics. The deployment of their carrier was part of their long-term interest and the attack on Raqqa clearly angered IS. Given the timing, this might have been the trigger for the attacks.

However, there is a broader consideration. The wave of immigration that has swept into Europe from the Islamic world, but particularly from Syria, has created a massive crisis in Europe and one that was particularly raucous prior to Oct. 1. Charges were being levelled by Germany against Central European countries for refusing to accept refugees. In turn, those countries charge that Germany was willing to transform their national character with an influx of refugees as well as endanger their national security.

The deeper reality is that Europe had nearly broken down over the Greek debt crisis. Now, it has totally broken down over the mass migration issue. Had Europe been functioning as an integrated entity, a European security force would have been dispatched to Greece at the beginning of the migration, to impose whatever policy on which the EU had decided. Instead, there was no European policy, nor was there any force to support the Greeks, who clearly lacked the resources to handle the situation themselves. Instead the major countries first condemned the Greeks for their failure, then the Macedonians as the crisis went north, then the Hungarians for building a fence, but not the Austrians who built a fence after the migrants left Hungary. The point is that the raucous debate took place at the same time that an avalanche of migrants or refugees, depending on how you addressed these, arrived.

From IS’ point of view, this provided two opportunities. Tactically, it gave them an opportunity to insert agents into Europe in the midst of migration. But this was a secondary issue, since IS could insert operatives at somewhat greater risk if they wanted. But there was a much more significant problem and opportunity for Islamic State.

First, the mass migration from Syria did not show itself at this level during the first phase of the Syrian civil war, when IS was not yet involved. It showed itself when IS became operational. As such, this posed a political problem for the group. The refugees were overwhelmingly Sunni and IS presented itself as the guarantor of Sunni rights. The fact that they were fleeing IS affirmed the sense in other parts of its territory that IS represented a threat not only to Shiites, Kurds and others, but also to Sunnis. Ultimately this represented a threat to IS’ power because if the Sunni base saw IS as a threat, then IS would become unsustainable.

That was the strategic threat of the immigrants. There was also a strategic opportunity in two ways. First, the reception of the migrants by the Europeans, particularly as displayed on television, was unwelcoming. The ability to demonstrate to the Muslim masses that the Europeans were now hostile not only to the principles of Islam, but to Muslims themselves, would potentially position IS as the defenders of Islam or at least the Sunnis. IS had been careful, in the midst of a rigorous interpretation and implementation of Sharia in areas under its control, to also create a system of social services that provided at least a safety net to Sunnis. Fleeing the IS safety net for Europe, Muslims now discovered how despised they were. From the Islamic State point of view, the more hostile the greeting to the migrants, the more solid their position. The chaotic arguments in Europe supported their position.

In late October, the atmosphere began to shift, or at least the intensity. Europe remained united, but the decision by Angela Merkel to very aggressively champion the case for sanctuary in Europe for the refugees not only created a battle with some European countries and the European right, but it also began to shift the center of gravity of European positions toward the idea that some sort of sanctuary had to be granted. This shift did not particularly please IS, since a more hostile stance satisfied its needs better.

Whether this was the reasoning that led to the attack in Paris is something we do not know. We do know that a passport for a Syrian refugee who had passed through Greece was found on the body of one of the dead attackers, although it has not yet been confirmed whether the passport matched the identity of the attacker. Clearly, in this case, the organizer of the attack had to know that the attacker would be identified. Once identified, he would be tracked to his entry in Greece and from there identified as a refugee. Care could have been taken to exclude refugees, or at least take greater steps to hide identities. Instead, the fact that he may have been a Syrian refugee, or at least was holding the passport of one, was discovered in hours. Whoever organized this attack was not careless and he undoubtedly knew the consequences of a Syrian refugee being among the attackers. This was obvious to anyone in Europe or elsewhere. Nevertheless, the attacks went forward, knowing that the attackers would be killed and identified.

Therefore, IS, or the subgroup in command of this operation, had to know that the consequence of this attack would not only be increased hostility to IS, but intense re-examination, in the context of legitimate fear, of the policy of admitting Syrian refugees into Europe. That would mean that they intended to have that outcome. In the most extreme case, the refugees would be either placed in camps under careful guard until their identities and links could be determined, which would take a long time. Alternatively, a program or simple ad hoc expulsions of the refugees would take place. In either case, a process of potential radicalization would begin that would both paint the Europeans as an enemy, clarifying sides, or create a base for recruiting troops for IS. There was only upside in this for IS.

The point that made this strategy attractive is that once the dead IS operative holding a Syrian passport was found, any reasonable European assumption would have to be that there were more. Given the numbers of dead and wounded, the presence of even a handful of such operatives would be cause for serious alarm. Given the fact that the operation was undertaken without any detection of movements or communications, it followed that the ability to discriminate between harmless refugees and IS operatives was uncertain. Considering this logic, any European not frightened was out of touch with reality.

The question at this point then is what will be Europe’s response. Already, the incoming Polish minister for European affairs has said that Poland will not be accepting refugee quotas previously agreed to by the European Union. Part of Europe’s response depends on how powerful the backlash against the German position will be. Undoubtedly this was taken into account when choosing a Franco-German soccer match as a target. But in driving home the fact that an influx of terrorists, however few, is one of the prices for providing succor for them, the position of anti-immigrant leaders, like Hungary’s Victor Orban, now looks more powerful than ever. This could cause a sweeping shift in European politics along with an end to the automatic assumption of open borders.

The European strategic problem is how to implement a plan to solve the crisis. If the plan is expulsion, how do you expel several million people? Certainly you don’t do it quickly. If the decision is to continue to provide them refuge, then the question is how do you identify IS or other operatives among them? Even questioning this many refugees, let alone effectively getting answers, will take a long time. And that long time is a window of opportunity for further operations.

It may all be an accident, but if it is an accident, it is a remarkable one. With this attack and its threats for more, IS has struck at the heart of Europe’s sense of security and regardless of what they do, the Europeans will be alienating huge numbers of people who not only have no where to go, but also have no way to get there in any reasonable time frame. What comes out of this is something Europe hasn’t seen for a long time: camps, carefully guarded, with interrogation. The refugees must be bought under control from the European point of view. That requires them to be confined. But how do you confine several million people?

IS has posed a challenge that either makes Europe vulnerable or brutal. If accidental, it was very lucky. But we suspect it was strategic thinking and quite capable strategic thinking at that.