The Cable

France: Paris Attack an ‘Act of War’ by the Islamic State

One of the deadliest terrorist strikes in French history suggests the jihadi group is copying al Qaeda and looking to hit the West.

paris

In what appears to be a significant shift in how and where the group operates, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the bloody attacks in Paris on Friday that killed more than 120 people and wounded over 350 others.

President François Hollande of France said Saturday that the terrorist group was to blame for the series of swift and coordinated strikes that rocked Paris and marked one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in the country’s history. That would mean the Islamic State was entering a new phase in its short and violent history, which until now has focused on gaining and holding ground in the Middle East and parts of North Africa. The attacks also suggest the group has the ability to plan and conduct complex operations outside of the Middle East, raising immediate fears of potential new strikes elsewhere in Europe and potentially inside the United States.

French authorities are saying that they suspect three teams of attackers carried out the brazen attacks, and that all eight of the attackers are dead. At least two of them detonated suicide belts as police closed in on them. One of the suspects has already been identified as a French citizen, who has long been known to French security forces for his radical Islamist ties, and another, killed at the Stade de France, was carrying a Syrian passport. Greek authorities say he passed through Greece in early October. Authorities in Belgium said Saturday that they’d arrested three men believed to be connected to the attack in Brussels.

A statement claiming to be from the Islamic State on Saturday said the attack “is the first of the storm” and that Paris, as the “carrier of the banner of the Cross in Europe,” will “remain on the top of the list of targets of the Islamic State.” A transcript of the statement, which was released in multiple languages and on pro-Islamic State Twitter accounts, was provided by the SITE Intelligence Group, which follows jihadi propaganda.

It is notable that the statement was distributed via the same format used to claim responsibility for the downing of a Russian passenger jet over the Sinai Peninsula last month, which killed 224 people. The Islamic State also claimed credit for Thursday’s bombing of a Beirut suburb that is known as a Hezbollah stronghold, killing more than 40 people and wounding about 200 more. Hezbollah fighters have fought on behalf of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against the Islamic State and other Syrian rebel groups.

The attacks in Paris, which hit six sites across the city simultaneously, appear to have been well-planned to create maximum carnage and stretch French security forces as they rushed to multiple locations at once.

The worst of the attacks by far occurred at the Bataclan concert hall, where several terrorists methodically slaughtered over 100 concertgoers before blowing themselves up when police raided the venue. Other attacks took place at the Stade de France, where four died; two restaurants, Le Carillon and Le Petit Cambodge, where 14 died; another restaurant, La Belle Equipe, where 18 died; an Italian pizzeria, La Casa Nostra, where five were killed; and the Comptoir Voltaire café, where one died.

With France preparing for three official days of mourning, and with the entire nation still under a state of emergency, authorities have been releasing the names of the dead. Among the fatalities: Nohemi Gonzalez, 23, a junior at California State University, Long Beach. She had been studying in France for a semester.

Hollande on Saturday called the attacks “an act of war that was committed by a terrorist army, a jihadi army, Daesh, against France,” using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “It is an act of war that was prepared, organized, and planned from abroad, with complicity from the inside, which the investigation will help establish.”

A U.S. intelligence official told Foreign Policy that while “we have seen nothing that contradicts President Hollande’s assessment of the situation,” the American intel community has nothing to add at this time.

French officials have yet to offer any details about what type of support network the group may have had inside France, and French internal security officials there are certain to face harsh scrutiny in the weeks ahead over their inability to detect the final preparations for the strikes.

Intelligence personnel in Europe and the United States may also have to adjust to a new reality in which the differences between the Islamic State and al Qaeda appear to be blurring to the point of irrelevance. Washington and its allies have long believed that there was a key strategic divide between the terrorist groups, with al Qaeda dedicated to carrying out attacks overseas and the Islamic State focused on maintaining its self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State, however, now appears to be adopting what had been an al Qaeda trademark: coordinated terrorist attacks inside major cities.

The Islamic State may also have even more capacity for such strikes than al Qaeda given the hundreds of citizens in France, England, the United States, and other countries who have gone to fight overseas and now have begun to return home using their existing passports. That potentially gives the Islamic State a network of militants it could dispatch to their home countries to conduct new strikes there.

U.S. President Barack Obama has called for a last-minute meeting with his National Security Council before he departs for the G-20 Summit in Turkey, where he’ll review the latest intelligence surrounding the attacks in Paris. Hollande has already canceled his visit to the meeting of world leaders and will send in his place Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Finance Minister Michel Sapin.

The attacks threaten to inflame anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe and the United States, in particular increasing support for the nationalist arguments of right-wing French politicians like Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front party.

In a televised address, Le Pen demanded that France reassert control of its national borders and “annihilate Islamist fundamentalism.” And in the Netherlands, far-right leader Geert Wilders demanded that the government close Dutch borders immediately.

It wasn’t directly clear how Hollande would carry out his promise to retaliate for the Paris attacks. France has been active in the U.S.-led air campaign against the Islamic State, launching 200 airstrikes in Iraq and a handful in Syria. The aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle was also recently dispatched to the Persian Gulf to participate in the air campaign.

In a sign of the expanding parameters of the fight against the Islamic State, U.S. officials on Saturday said that an American F-15 fighter plane launched an airstrike Friday evening targeting a top Islamic State leader in Libya near the eastern port city of Darnah. Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook confirmed that the strike targeted Abu Nabil, an Iraqi national who was a longtime al Qaeda operative and the senior Islamic State leader in Libya. The strike had nothing to do with the attacks in Paris, however, as the mission was already underway when the events were unfolding.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter spoke with the French minister of defense, Jean-Yves Le Drian, on Saturday morning, and according to a statement released by the Pentagon, he told his French counterpart: “The U.S. and France maintain a close relationship in countering terrorism around the world, including direct action in North Africa, Syria, and Iraq.” The statement added that Carter “reiterated the U.S. commitment to stand by its oldest ally in taking additional steps to ‘respond to these barbaric attacks.’”

 

Photo credit: Antoine Antoniol/Getty Images

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