November 16, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Terror in Paris and Beyond

• The terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 129 and wounded 300 are not simply the latest in a string of random attacks

• These most recent attacks represent an unfortunate near-term reality in which persistent conflict and widespread radicalization present an escalating threat that is as unavoidable as it is predictable

• As the scope of the Paris plot moves from France to Belgium to Syria, the global scale of the threat overwhelms the threat matrix

• The ideology behind the Islamic State and other groups has spread far beyond the battlefields of Syria to the arrondissements of France, presenting today’s leaders with generational challenges.


The November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris were not simply the latest in a string of attacks in Paris, let alone in Europe. Rather the attacks, by three teams across six locations, represent the opening of a long-dreaded front in the war on terror and violent extremism; a new chapter in the Syrian civil war; and the continued rise of the ideology of bin Ladinism. The threat of the so-called Islamic State, after more than a year of international focus, has yet to be contained.

The Islamic State has long depended on the ‘new terror spectacular,’ in which the group inspires small-scale external attacks that generate ‘spectacular’ reactions. One person with a hammer and a flag was enough to generate needed momentum for the group; there was no such thing as a failed terror attack. Attacks such as those in Sinai, Beirut, and now Paris, suggest the group has evolved from inspiring attacks to directing them, with a corresponding leap in lethality and body count. The group called for ad hoc and random attacks by amateur supporters until it had the professionals in place; the difference is sadly clear in the numbers of dead civilians.

Initial reports suggest there was a level of direct and meaningful communication between some of the Paris attackers—more 'known wolves of terror' of French descent, living in Belgium—and an Islamic State member in Syria. Up until now it had been a guessing game as to how much direction Islamic State leadership had provided in previous attacks. It appears from initial reports that the Paris attackers were at least in recent contact with operatives in Syria, which would represent, on one level, a giant leap from the capital of the Caliphate into Western Europe.

The spectre of direct command and control—in terms of the group’s reach—is indeed worrisome. Yet there remains the possibility that these attacks were not necessarily directed, but rather were motivated and enabled. There are 30,000 foreign fighters who have gone to fight for the Islamic State; even a small percentage of those able to return, such as several of the Paris attackers, represent a clear and present danger. It is much harder, from a counterterrorism perspective, to disrupt ill-formed cells of local family members and friends than it is to detect and disrupt plots that travel along traditional centralized terror nodes of command and control. Small yet effective terror cells that the group has hardened and shaped—but only loosely directed—represent a true counterterrorism nightmare.

Like Ankara, Beirut, and countless other cities in recent weeks and years, Paris must confront a real threat, about which there is nothing hypothetical or conjectural. The challenge in attacks such as those in Paris and beyond is that they require actual responses, and not just platitudes or slogans; how and in what form these responses take shape in societies under duress will be the looming question for years to come.


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