Paris Attacks May Not Signal Change in ISIS Foreign Policy

Understanding Islamic State's strategy is of major importance, but the group's sophisticated terrorist infrastructure, like that of Al-Qaida, can identify any country's weak spots.

Candles line the sidewalk at a vigil outside the French Consulate in response to the attacks in Paris, in Los Angeles, California, United States, November 14, 2015.
Reuters

After hours of delay, the Islamic State issued a detailed statement in Arabic and French on Saturday taking responsibility for Friday night's wave of terror attacks in Paris. "Allah has come from an unexpected place to instill terror in the hearts" of residents of the French capital, the statement began. The pretext for the Paris attacks, according to the statement, is the fact that Paris is a center of "lust and prostitution" and a "standard-bearer of the Crusaders in Europe."

Toward the end, the statement refers to France "hitting the Muslims on the land of the Caliphate," a reference to the territory the Islamic State holds, although it doesn't explicitly say that the attacks were in revenge for French participation in the coalition fighting in Syria and Iraq.

The statement adds nothing to what has already been published in Western media, but does confirm that eight members of the Islamic State, armed with explosives belts and machine guns, carried out the attacks, which it describes one by one.

However, the statement differs from the one issued after the downing of the Russian airliner over Sinai at the end of last month. In that case, the statement, put out by the Sinai branch of ISIS, was brief and lacking in details.

Generally, every ISIS district publicizes the operations that it carries out, but in the case of the Paris massacres, the statement came from the organization's command headquarters with no attribution to a specific district.

Saturday's statement appears to put an end to speculation over the affiliation of the Paris attackers, but it seems that any such speculation was unnecessary. Over the course of the year, beginning immediately after January's attacks in Paris on the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine and the Hyper Casher kosher supermarket, the group issued direct threats against France. In February, it warned in French: "Our fighters are dispersed everywhere. The real nightmare will be starting now. The real war is starting now."

Police patrol at the Eiffel Tower in Paris, which was closed following the previous day's terror attacks, November 14, 2015.
AFP

In July another warning was issued to France and last Thursday the group vowed that ISIS would be striking in France "very soon." Similar warnings, albeit of a more general nature, have also been issued by Al-Qaida, but in contrast to ISIS, Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has encouraged "lone wolf" attacks without central coordination, particularly against the United States.

In any event, Al-Qaida has not at this point commented on responsibility for Friday's attacks. In the rivalry between the two Islamist extremist groups, Al-Qaida continues to suffer damage at the hands of ISIS, as every terror attack attributed to ISIS makes it harder for Al-Qaida to recruit new volunteers and to provide itself with a stable flow of funds. In fact, it was recently reported that Al-Qaida in northwest Africa intends to join ISIS, thereby completing the process of expelling the group from Libya, Tunisia and Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.

ISIS operations beyond its base in Syria and Iraq is not new, but up to now it has adopted a strategy of solidifying its hold on areas that it already controls, establishing civil administration and services, and using warfare to expand the districts' borders. This is in contrast to Al-Qaida's original strategy, which espoused taking on the "enemy" both near and far, meaning Arab and Muslim targets as well as Western ones, without aspiring to establish areas of civilian control.

That strategy changed, however, after the war in Afghanistan and following the Second Gulf War in 2003, which made nearby targets available to the organization without it having to plan high-profile attacks in the West — though from time to time, such attacks were also committed.

The differences in strategy apparently enforced a sense of security in the West, based on the assumption that ISIS, unlike Al-Qaida, wasn't expected to pose an immediate threat to the West and that at most, there was a need to track volunteers from Europe (estimated at more than 15,000 people). It's difficult to know whether this working assumption needs to be scrapped in light of the Paris attacks.

Eight suicide bombers in Paris, the terrorist who killed 39 people in Tunisia in July, along with an ISIS activist who may have placed a bomb on the Russian airliner that crashed in Sinai and last week's massive terror attack in Beirut, are not necessarily omens of a change in ISIS's "foreign policy," shifting its front from Arab countries to the West.

Understanding ISIS policy is of major importance in light of the strategy that Western and Arab countries are adopting against the group. The war against ISIS over the past year and a half has focused on its concentration of forces in Syria and Iraq. It's been waged on the assumption that operations such as hitting its sources of funding, such as oil fields, or assassinating its leaders, will curb its operations. Up to now, however, this war has failed to meet its objectives, particularly because of the absence of significant forces on the ground to complement the aerial assaults.

At most, this strategy may put a halt to the organization's ability to advance into new areas. In both of these countries, ISIS has managed to build an international military theater in which Iran and Russia are partners, as are countries in the West. At the same time, it has succeeded in throwing a wrench into the prospects for international cooperation because of the differences among the interests of the partners.

Attacks against ISIS in Arab countries could lead to "revenge" attacks in the West, but when it comes to operations on European soil, the specific organization an attacker belongs to is almost irrelevant. In order to successfully tackle these attacks, Western intelligence agencies would need to work together much better than they currently are. Coordination is being hampered by rivalries over prestige between various intelligence bodies — as well as a shortage of expert operatives. There has been talk in the past of establishing an international counterterrorism body, but disagreements over the authority such a body would have, as well as legislative and funding issues, have thwarted the initiative thus far.

As a result, individual countries are fighting their own war on terror, while organizations like ISIS and Al-Qaida have created coordinated and sophisticated networks which cross international borders and can easily identify every country's weak spots.