The Islamic State’s (IS) coordinated terror attack staged throughout Paris on the evening of November 13, 2015—Europe’s most deadly urban terror attack in over a decade—signal a simultaneous return to jihadi ideological roots as well as a new era in tactical evolution and strategic ambition.
Strategically, the Paris attacks, consisting of six interlinked operations featuring explosions outside of a bar near the Stade de France; shootings at restaurants in the 10th Arrondissement; and over a hundred dead during a hostage situation at the Bataclan concert venue, are a textbook adaptation of “Call for Global Islamic Resistance,” a prominent text distributed by jihadi strategist Abu Musab al-Suri containing detailed attack guidelines.
In a translation of his terrorism treatise, circulated by jihadi supporters in the fall of 2015, the al-Qaeda (AQ) strategist wrote of the need to carry out mass-casualty attacks in the homeland of the U.S. and her military allies. The text reads, in part:
....the type of attack, which repels states and topples governments, is mass slaughter of the population. This is done by targeting human crowds in order to inflict maximum human losses. This is very easy since there are numerous such targets, such as crowded sports arenas, annual social events, large international exhibitions, crowded market-places, sky-scrapers, crowded buildings...etc
The document also proposes a view that is widespread among jihadi supporters:
The basic idea is that any operation which kills civilians or harms faithful muslims, or any action performed by troops of the country at war... should be met with an equally deterring action…
Similarly, al-Suri called upon readers to reframe casualties caused by American intervention in Muslim countries as a form of terrorism against Muslim communities, and conclude that not only is the “share” of world terrorism from jihadi organizations “embarrassingly low,” but that Muslims are the “the most terrorized of all people.” This perspective helps to explain why, in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks, some supporters of both IS and AQ responded to the Paris attack by showing what they presented as images of slain civilians in Syria.
Tactically, the tactics of the Paris attacks represent a striking integration of approaches. According to the initial reports, seven operations were carried out using a combination of firearms, explosives, and suicide bombings. Using firearms to massacre civilians, as was reportedly the case in the restaurant attacks and the Bataclan attack, is reflective of top-down jihadi strategic directives. These tactics have emphasized that their accessibility and lethality provide a more certain result for terror operations seeking to kill civilians. As such, firearms have been used in several of the most recent Western attacks, including the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo and Ile de France massacres, Mohamed Merah’s March 2012 attacks, and Nidal Hasan’s November 2009 shooting at Fort Hood.
Yet, the November 13, 2015 Paris attacks entailed not only coordination of seven separate targets, but also integration of bomb-making skills and explosive suicide belts worn by the attackers. The use of such explosive devices implies operatives or planners with significant operational expertise, such that they were not only able to compile the firearms for the operation but also handle and assemble the explosive devices. Moreover, it suggests sophisticated preparation needed to either assemble the explosives under the noses of French officials or to transport the explosives from their point(s) of creation to Paris.
IS has clearly decided to follow through on these threats
Indeed, the complexity of these attacks were clearly intended to signal the degree to which IS has used its resources, and the advantages of its operational freedom in Syria. The organization has long threatened Western countries with the promise of sending trained fighters to the West. These threats have most often been centered around the potential for foreign fighters to return to the West and carry out terror attacks. Although the identities of the Paris attackers are not yet known, IS has clearly decided to follow through on these threats. The message is not only aimed at France, but at all countries potentially thinking about intervening in Syria. With the Paris attacks, IS knows that it has assured the credibility of its future threats.
Even current strategies of intervention will have little impact on the group’s future credibility: the actions used in the Paris attacks are the tactics of insurgency and terrorism. Existing Western strategies of conducting airstrikes and sponsoring counter-IS militias, on the other hand, are strategies suited for civil conflicts conducted with identifiable organizations and battle-lines.
Although airstrikes can degrade large, settled bases of IS and destroy the war machines used in Syria, the commando and explosives training needed for these types of attacks can be conducted among small, hard-to-detect bands of operatives. IS is telling the West that as a hybrid terror organization and autocratic state, they can operate on both levels. True states do not have that option, particularly in the West.
Together, the picture is ominous: targeting packed entertainment and civilian venues in France indicates that the most extreme jihadi strategic directives have transitioned from propaganda and ideological material to active tactical engagement. Meanwhile, the successful coordination of several attackers, using an array of weaponry, implies a high-level of planning that still evaded Europe’s sophisticated security infrastructure.