In near-simultaneous attacks on November 13, assailants armed with assault rifles and wearing explosive belts targeted six sites in Paris killing more than 120 people. The serial attacks have been described as the worst violence in France since World War II, the deadliest in the European Union since the Madrid train bombings in 2004, and by some analysts, as the first suicide attack in France. French President Francois Hollande deemed the shootings and bombings “an act of war”. He has declared a state of emergency in France and enhanced its border controls with neighbours.
The Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the horrific attacks the next day through an online statement distributed by its supporters. The statement said eight militants had attacked precisely selected areas in the French capital. The IS, since then, also has a hashtag celebrating the attacks.
In addition to the 129 people killed in the Paris attacks, 352 were injured, at least 99 seriously, the deadliest being the massacre at Bataclan concert hall where at least 89 people were killed. Le Bataclan was the only target location where a hostage situation had developed. A total of seven terrorists who were operating in three teams have been known to be killed, six in suicide attacks and one by the security personnel. The eighth attacker is now reported to have been arrested. One of the suicide bombers has been identified as Ismael Omar Mostefai, a French citizen.
The information on the sequence of the attacks, the total number of attackers, nationality and details of local support are still being ascertained, but investigation has expanded to other countries (Germany, Belgium, and Montenegro) and to the period weeks before November 13. This article analyses the attacks based on the initial information.
While the attacks have found similarities with the “Mumbai-style” (small teams, multiple targets), there is also some commonality with the 07 January attack in Paris this year on the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery. The Charlie Hebdo attackers had claimed links to Al-Qaeda in Yemen, while the kosher market attacker had claimed ties to the IS.
Eye witnesses’ accounts in both the attacks recounted how attackers had verbally conveyed the purpose of their attacks. While in the case of Charlie Hebdo one of the attackers at the scene told onlookers, “You can tell the media that it’s Al Qaeda in Yemen”, the November Paris attacks in a similar manner were attributed to the French intervention in Syria and Iraq.
A Syrian passport, found near the body of an attacker outside one of the targeted sites, the Stade de France, has provided the first clues to the attacker’s identities. Similarly, during the Charlie Hebdo attacks one of the attackers, a French citizen, Said Kouachi, left his passport in the getaway car. However what would worry the French security establishment is the third point of similarity.
As was in the case of Charlie Hebdo and Jewish market attackers, Mostefai, the 29-year-old French national, identified by his fingerprints to be one of the terrorists involved in the attack on the concert hall, had a criminal history and was acknowledged as having been radicalized in 2010. The Turkish intelligence now claims to have warned the French on two separate occasions about Mostefai’s activities. Some of the Paris attackers are also thought to be known to the Belgium intelligence.
France though a late entrant in Syria, has been executing a major portion of the airstrikes against the IS. The French started their air operations in Syria in September, a year after it launched similar operations in Iraq. It is now using six Rafale multirole fighter aircraft stationed in the United Arab Emirates and six Mirage 2000 fighters deployed in Jordan. On October 8, France attacked an IS training camp in Raqqa, north-eastern Syria, which was believed to house foreign fighters, including French nationals.
IS, of late, has been losing territory in Iraq and Syria. The recent attacks by IS outside Syria and Iraq are being seen as a means of releasing the pressure. Few days ago, the IS had launched a twin suicide attack against an area in Lebanon where the Shia militant group Hezbollah is strong. The attack was not only to hit back physically at the Hezbollah but also at its political and recruitment base to cause a rethink on its intervention in Syria in aid of the Bashar al-Assad regime. The message to Paris maybe the same.
There may also be some symbolism here, as Paris, after the Charlie Hebdo attacks and large peace rallies with participation of as many as 40 world leaders, is seen as a defiant symbol of liberal values against terrorism.
Analysts have linked the timing of the Paris attack to killing of Jihadi John or simply the date Friday 13/11. There could be another reason: France was planning to ratchet up its military action in Syria. On November 18, France’s only aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, is scheduled to leave for the Persian Gulf to join the fight against IS. According to the French government spokesman “The naval group will leave Toulon (a major French naval base), to arrive in the Persian Gulf in mid-December.” The nuclear-powered vessel can deploy up to 40 fixed wing jets and helicopters, including 12 Rafales. The Charles de Gaulle had earlier been in action in February and in April 2015 against the IS in Iraq. Starting 16 November, France has predictably launched a retaliatory aerial blitz against the IS, but, if the Charles de Gaulle sails out on November 18, it will be an indication that the French policy against the IS, post the Paris attacks, remains unchanged.
Several analysts have viewed the coordination and preparation exhibited by Friday’s IS attack on Paris, as evidence of IS moving into a higher bracket of operational sophistication outside the Iraq-Syria conflict zone. IS has never before conducted an operation on such a scale in Europe, and has been limiting itself to use of indiscriminate killings.
The second aspect of the current IS strategy relates to attacks on soft targets to cause high civilian casualties, attributed by analysts to ease of carrying out operations of this type. It would be noted that recent Russian air strikes against the IS, post the Metrojet crash in Sinai, have also targeted civilian assets in Raqqa. Therefore, given the present situation, high civilian casualties in IS attacks, may find more resonance and yield better dividends in terms of greater morale, recruitment and funding for the terror organisation.
The Syrian passport was found near the body of the first suicide bomber outside one of the targeted sites, the Stade de France, belonged to a person who had been processed on the Greek island of Leros, according to Greek authorities. French authorities now officially believe that even if the passport is fake, the refugee route through Greece it is being used by the IS to get into Europe. This is likely to have wide-ranging ramifications for the refugees, EU border controls, Schengen agreement process, encourage right wing protests and physical security of refugees. It may even become, as it did during the recent elections in Croatia, a political issue in some EU countries. Poland has already declared, post the Paris attacks, that it will not host any Syrian refugees
India could take few quick lessons from the Paris shooting on intelligence gathering and sharing, border controls, and monitoring of individuals staying in India with refugee status. However, most important of all is the crying need to fund and expedite projects on criminal tracking, Aadhar and the National Population Register. These are tactical decisions with strategic import. India’s internal security protocols have to be of global standard before it can be part of any global partnership to fight terror.
More significantly, India needs to review its threat assessment of the IS. We have to look beyond how many Indian recruits are there in IS or how many of its cadres can the IS send to India. The IS threat has to be assessed in terms of how many Indians the IS can inspire to act against the country without them even leaving the Indian shores.
*Monish Gulati is Associate Director (Strategic Affairs) with the Society for Policy Studies. He can be contacted at [email protected] This article appeared at South Asia Monitor.