Paris Attacks: Do They Change the ISIS Narrative?

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Paris Attacks: Do They Change the ISIS Narrative?

| published November 14, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor


ISIS militants have taken responsibility for the deaths of 129 people in Paris in a series of well-coordinated terrorist attacks, possibly signaling that the Islamic State intends to expand its war across the globe and on a truly vast scale.

On Friday, terrorists launched a complex and widespread series of timed militant attacks in the City of Lights.

Bombers detonated explosives at the Stade de France during a soccer match between teams from Germany and France. Heavily armed gunmen, brandishing AK47s, stormed the Bataclan Concert Hall, shooting indiscriminately at hostages, and lobbing grenades into the mass of people when police finally stormed the theater. At crowded restaurants in two locations, heavily armed men opened fire, killing scores. In still other locations around Paris, militants clad in black and inside a black car shot at random people on street corners, killing dozens more.

The death toll may rise, as according to French law enforcement, more than 350 are injured, some 100 of those with conditions ranging from serious to critical. The top prosecutor for Paris, Francois Molins, met with reporters on Saturday afternoon to outline what is known about the attacks and about those who carried out the violent militant actions.

Molins revealed to journalists what had already been rumored for hours—that in Germany and Belgium arrests had been made of individuals with direct connections to the Paris attacks. He said other arrests will also follow, and explained that the recent arrests came after vehicles involved in the shooting were identified from witnesses and from security cameras. One vehicle was a black Fiat, the other a Volkswagen Polo. One of the cars is registered in Belgium, and the other may be a rental car. The driver and a passenger in the Fiat were responsible for the shooting of scores of people outside two popular corner restaurants.

Molins outlined the sequence of the attacks: at 9:18 p.m., suicide bombers strike the first blow at the stadium. Only two or three minutes later, attacks begin outside the restaurants and cafes, where hundreds of rounds are found. Then, minutes later, there is another suicide bombing at the stadium, followed within four minutes of reports of shots being fired on people walking along the Rue de la Fontaine au Roi. At 9:35 or 9:40 p.m., Paris time, a group of heavily armed gunmen storm into a rock concert by the group Eagles of Death Metal, a Palm Desert, California band known for its fusion of heavy metal and blues rock. The band was performing their sixth song out of a 14 song set when the militants opened fire near the back of the theater. The shooting was indiscriminate and heavy, and witnesses say the gunmen stopped only briefly, and then only long enough to reload their weapons.

From the detonation of the first bomb at the stadium to when the first shots were fired at Bataclan, only about 20 minutes had passed. Though officials are certain of only eight terrorists (some reports say there are nine positively identified in the count), police are certain others are involved. Molins confirmed that the search for accomplices is still ongoing.

In addition to what Molins described as “war-type weapons” (based on the translator’s interpretation of the phrase), Molins also characterized the explosive and incendiary materials used as relatively new, but also highly “volatile.” All of the suicide bombers used the same explosive devices, similar vests, and identical triggering mechanisms. The volatility of the explosives (which he declined to identify by chemical name) may have contributed to what some police think was a premature detonation of one bomb at the stadium.

Molins also said that the link between the attacks and ISIS seems self-determined, since in addition to immediate claims by the Islamic State that it instigated the attacks, multiple witnesses claim some of the attackers shouted or spoke of the Islamic State and of Syria and Iraq.

The attacks in Paris come on the heels of other ISIS military and terror operations in a half dozen countries in less than two weeks, including the bombing of a Russian Metrojet plane carrying 224 passengers and crew over the Sinai Peninsula, an area now known to be controlled by ISIS militants. ISIS militants detonated bombs in downtown Baghdad last week, killing more than a dozen people and injuring dozens more—the third time in a month that ISIS has attacked Iraq’s capital using terror tactics. Dozens more were killed in Beirut last week, when ISIS operatives from Syria used car bombs to expand the Islamic State’s war into neighboring Lebanon, and in an effort to blunt the influence of rival group Hezbollah, which backs the regime of Syrian President Bashir al-Assad.

ISIS has made itself abundantly clear it is at war with its enemies, including the U.S., Britain, France, Turkey, Russia, the governments of Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, any and all opposing ethnic or religious groups, and any rival organization which stands in its way—from Hezbollah to Hamas, from al Qaeda to the so-called “moderate” rebels fighting in the chaotic fields that are Syria.

The Paris attacks by ISIS may represent a decisive turning point in a two-week stretch of time in which ISIS has stepped far outside of its template thus far, and signals that the Islamic State now considers itself subservient to no other terror or militant framework, including that of al Qaeda. ISIS has declared itself at war, and French President Francois Hollande has verbally reciprocated, agreeing that ISIS’s multiple attacks on Friday were an act of war.

The Friday night terror attacks were the single worst for Europe since the 2004 railway bombings in Madrid, Spain, in which 191 people died.

In a speech late last night on French television—and simulcast on radio and the web—Hollande characterized the terror attacks as the work of “barbarians,” and said that intelligence officials describe the assaults as the work of local and regional ISIS cells, guided by the instructions of ISIS leaders in Syria.

Former French President Nicholas Sarkozy issued his own statement, assuring the world that France must act with force and without fear.

“The war we wage should be total,” Sarkozy said.

The attacks in Paris also come just days after the United States says it killed Mohammed Emwazi, an ISIS operative more commonly known as Jihadi John. Emwazi has become the de facto media face of the Islamic State, a frequent online spokesman and “moderator” of videos and films produced for propaganda purposes. Among his more dubious distinctions: Emwazi has been the menacing man with the knives in videos which show the beheading of ISIS kidnap victims, among them American, British and Japanese journalists and humanitarian workers.

Intelligence agencies in the U.S. and Britain identified Emwazi months ago, but lack of reliable field data limited their ability to track his exact whereabouts. Pentagon and CIA officials have told some in the media, however, that the ability of the U.S. to glean useful on-the-ground intelligence has gained in strength in recent months, and coupled with even more sophisticated forms of satellite and drone imagery, enabled intelligence experts and the U.S. military to paint Emwazi as a target. Emwazi (and at least one other militant) was killed this week after being tracked by U.S. and British drones to central Raqqa, where—after high-altitude imagery showed Emwazi leaving a building and stepping into a car. Sources in the U.S. Central Command say that the car and its occupants “were vaporized” by the explosion.

Still, most military and terrorism experts question that the wave of Paris attacks was any form of direct response to Emwazi’s assassination. Too little time would have passed between the actions in Raqqa—the self-proclaimed capital of the Islamic State—and the start of the attacks in Paris.

As of Saturday night, the number of deaths as a result of the attacks was 129.

ISIS has come a long way since the early spring of 2014 when U.S. President Barack Obama characterized the group as amateurs and “the junior varsity team.” ISIS sprang out of the lawlessness which prevailed in the Syrian civil war and the Arab Spring. Using more extreme forms of violence than their al Qaeda counterparts in Syria and northwestern Iraq, the group overcame its ragtag characteristics and its poor funding to eventually co-opt or eliminate much of its competition among the anti-Assad forces. Using a combination of ousted Baathists and Sunni extremists, the group quickly become the primary force in northern Syria. In spring 2014 it unleashed a shocking blitzkrieg across what remained of eastern Syria, rolling into northwestern Iraq, and sending the Iraqi army into mass retreat and eventual collapse.

Much of the Iraqi retreat was accompanied by the wholesale abandonment of nearly a billion dollars worth of U.S.-supplied military hardware—Jeeps, SUVs, artillery pieces, personnel carriers, tanks, ammunition caches, logistical supplies, trucks, trailers, and automatic weapons. Even uniforms and helmets were abandoned, often right on the ground. ISIS militants used cell phone cameras to show off their easily-obtained swag, from military issued laptops and walkie-talkies, to rifles and machine guns, to the printed operating manuals for tanks and vehicle-mounted guns. Within only a matter of months, ISIS had gained control over much of a country in which thousands of Americans had died to liberate from Saddam Hussein and Sunni extremists. The Iraqi Army fell into near total collapse, and ISIS drove southward to within 30 miles of Baghdad.

Within a short period of six weeks, ISIS units overran hundreds of towns and cities, unleashing a murderous wave of executions—from mass shootings, to the systematic beheading of anyone who stood in the group’s path. Schools were closed, women ordered to stay indoors, shopkeepers extorted, banks looted, farms and groves confiscated, and members of religious and ethnic minority groups killed on the spot. Kurds and Yazidis were murdered en masse, and Christians were crucified, their bodies left attached to crosses and poles for weeks. The children of Yazidis and Christians (and in some areas, Shia Muslims) were shot or beheaded.

The “junior varsity team” soon took control of oil refineries, oil distribution operations, vast weapons caches abandoned by the Iraqi army, and even the massive hydroelectric facility at Mosul. ISIS units fought with Kurds in northern Syria and northern Iraq, eventually taking control of the region right up to the fence which separates Turkey—a NATO ally—from Syria. Closer to Damascus, ISIS eventually seized air force facilities and army bases once under the command of Assad, and sent large components of its militants to seize all border checkpoints between Iraq and Jordan.

ISIS now has large contingents operating inside some ten other countries, including Egypt—where a Sinai-based unit has taken responsibility for the downing of a Russian passenger plane—and Libya, and in Yemen, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Mali, Nigeria, the Sudan, and now Lebanon. The third largest ISIS component may now be in Afghanistan, where some terrorism experts predict the group will soon supplant al Qaeda as the primary driver of worldwide terror operations.

The attacks in Paris indicate that ISIS is willing to expand its footprint far beyond the contiguous or quasi-contiguous regions of the Middle East and Saharan Africa. The attacks may also represent a game-changer for the militant group, which seeks to spread fear into the streets and shops and coffee houses of any country which joins in the fight against the caliphate.

Late on Saturday, ISIS issued an online statement, again claiming full responsibility for the Paris attacks, but also assuring France that it “will remain at the top of the list” for future terrorist acts.

The ISIS statement condemned the French role in the coalition airstrikes, calling it part of “The Crusaders’ campaign,” and accusing France of cursing and insulting the Prophet Muhammed. Previous attacks in France have been launched by ISIS as retaliation for France’s liberal and expressive press and media. In January, militants stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine known for its frequent mocking of religious intolerance, and its occasional cartoon caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed (though the January attack was later claimed by al Qaeda, not ISIS).

The statement issued by ISIS on Saturday was released in both Arabic and French.

In the meantime, much of Paris remains closed, including theaters, markets, shopping centers and malls, and major events in sports and entertainment venues. Schools were also closed. Movement around the city is no longer limited, but access to the areas where attacks occurred is strictly controlled and limited as police say they have more forensic work to complete.

Hollande has called for three days of mourning in France.

Related Thursday Review articles:

ISIS Launches Rampage in Paris; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; November 14, 2015.

U.S. & U.K. Intelligence: ISIS Chatter Prior to Russian Crash; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; NOvember 6, 2015.