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Originally published in Foreign Affairs
Last Friday night’s simultaneous terror attacks on Paris served as a stark reminder of the threat the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS) poses to the West. At present, 132 are confirmed to be dead, andISIS has warned that France was “just the beginning of the storm.” Ominous as that may be, however, France has been under sustained assault from Islamist terrorists for the last 12 months, even if the threat has gone largely unnoticed by the public. Although most of the attacks have been thwarted, their frequency—and the ways in which the French state has uncovered them—is alarming.
ISIS spoke of France back in September 2014, when group spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani proclaimed to his listeners that “if you can kill an American or European infidel, especially the spiteful and cursed French, kill them in any way possible.” The response to this call was rapid: in December 2014, Bertrand Nzohabonayo attacked three police officers with a knife in Joué-lès-Tours and was shot and killed. Nzohabonayo had uploaded an ISIS flag to his Facebook account shortly before.
Weeks later, Said and Cherif Kouachi, two brothers who had been trained by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, murdered 12 staff members during anattack on Charlie Hebdo magazine’s headquarters in Paris. These particular strikes were not explicitly linked to ISIS, but the next ones were. Over a two-day period in January 2015, Amedy Coulibaly, one of Cherif Kouachi’s associates, killed five people in Paris. He had pledged loyalty to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
More was to follow. In April 2015, Sid Ahmed Ghlam allegedly planned to kill Parisian churchgoers and is suspected of having murdered a gym instructor during an attempt to steal her car. Ghlam’s plans were thwarted only when he accidentally shot himself in the leg and was forced to call an ambulance. Three months later, a heavily armed Ayoub el-Khazzani attacked a train heading to Paris from Amsterdam, only to be restrained by passengers and arrested. Both Ghlam and el-Khazzani are linked to the Belgian jihadist and Paris attacks mastermind Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a key figure in terror networks with ties to ISIS in Syria. Abaaoud was also linked to the ISIS cell operating in Verviers, Belgium, that was disrupted in January 2015.
None of these cases were detected by French police before they began to unfold. Granted, other plots have been thwarted—such as an attack on a military base in the south of France—but in reality, other disastrous attacks were averted only through good luck and heroic citizens. France’s domestic security agency, the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Intérieure, was formed in May 2014, replacing the Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur. According to the France 24 journalist Leela Jacinto, the idea was to “beef up, enlarge, and provide more funds” to the DGSI in order to—as one French official put it—turn it into a “war machine” capable of staving off the terror threat. This task has had an inauspicious start.
The state of French security is problematic enough, but equally troubling is the fact that ISIS is now pulling off complex, coordinated plots that were previously perceived as too difficult for the group to execute. Their coordination skills are improving, even if intelligence-gathering exercises against them are not. Last Friday’s coordinated terror attack on Paris was a large operation: eight bombers and certainly a larger support network around them. In most cases, this level of coordination would increase the chances of someone involved making a mistake or getting sloppy with security and allowing authorities to disrupt cells and prevent attacks. That didn’t happen this time.
Additionally, not only were the plotters able to acquire guns and ammunition without drawing suspicion, they appear to have been wearing suicide vests packed with a homemade explosive containingtriacetone triperoxide (TATP)—a preferred ingredient of would-be suicide bombers. The cell was able to acquire these ingredients and construct the vests without raising red flags from either the police or their neighbors. TATP was harnessed in the jihadist training camps of Afghanistan the 1990s, used in terrorist plots such as would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid’s attempt to bomb a commercial airliner in 2001, and was detonated successfully in the 2005 London transport network bombings. TATP has since become known as a preferred weapon by jihadist terrorists, and surveillance of those who try to acquire it has been stepped up. In turn, terrorists have had to place a greater emphasis on gun and knife attacks in recent years.
Another source of trouble for intelligence agencies is the indication that Parisian terrorists communicated with ISIS fighters abroad through encrypted messaging services on phones and video game consoles. Although it is not yet clear how encryption was used in this case, the ubiquity of encrypted messaging can create difficulties for intelligence agencies that are tasked with preventing the next attack. In the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation pushed tech companies for backdoor access to encrypted servers, only to give up on these requests earlier this month.
There were also missed opportunities for the authorities, both before and after the attacks, to make sweeping arrests of suspects that were tied either to the Paris attacks or to potential plots in the future. Officials believe that a man arrested last week in Bavaria with explosives, guns, TNT, and grenades was linked to activities in France—although he has not yet been proven to have connections to the Paris attacks. Salah Abdeslam, the man who rented the car used in the Paris terrorist attacks, was stopped at the Belgian border mere hours after the attacks. The police, unaware of his links, allowed Salah to continue his journey. A manhunt is currently under way to locate him again.
Perhaps the most politically sensitive aspect of ISIS’ operation is that some of the attackers may have entered Europe from Syria as refugees. The sheer numbers of people coming into Europe makes security vetting a monumentally difficult task. It has even placed pressure on the historic Schengen Agreement, which ensures free movement of people and the abolition of internal borders in the EU. The president of the European Council recently warned that “the future of Schengen is at stake and time is running out . . . we must regain control of our external borders.”
The failure of French and European authorities to stop the supply of guns, detect bomb making, and crack the lines of communications used by terrorists demonstrates the imminent problems faced by all Western security agencies, let alone the French. Such issues, as well as ISIS’ continued ability to recruit, will need to be addressed. That Belgium is increasingly being used as a base from which to plan attacks (as appears to have been the case again in the Paris attacks) should also be given far more attention. France has already called for more intelligence sharing among European Union countries, which, while perhaps desirable, is also not a new suggestion.
France certainly cannot do this alone. A united Western response against ISIS is needed. If the early signs are anything to go by, U.S. President Barack Obama will not shift from his current strategy with regard to defeating ISIS. At a press conference in Turkey yesterday, he stated that “we have the right strategy, and we’re going to see it through.” Therefore, air strikes against ISIS, the training of local forces to take them on the ground, and the use of diplomatic channels, including Iran and Russia, in an attempt to ease Syrian President Bashar al-Assad out of power remains the plan. As this strategy has, at best, made only incremental progress in Obama’s stated aim to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, the security threat the group poses in the West will endure for some time yet.
Therefore, the lessons that must be learned from Paris must be learned quickly.
ISIS is entrenched in both Iraq and Syria and is now lashing out far beyond its own borders. If Western governments cannot improve domestic security measures while hastening the downfall of ISIS abroad, a repeat of the horrors of Paris is not just a possibility—it is an inevitability.