Paris Terror Attacks: A Game Changer, No Matter Who's Behind It

Up to now, all attacks in Europe ascribed to jihadists identifying with ISIS have been the actions of 'lone-wolves' who had either returned from Syria or were unable to travel there.

French Red Cross rescue workers evacuate an injured person near the Bataclan concert hall in central Paris, on November 13, 2015.
AFP

Any quick conclusions from the carnage in Paris are extremely premature at this stage with security forces just ending the hostage situation in a packed theater and still collecting first evidence from the various scenes of attacks. One thing however is certain, such a coordinated attack, involving at least seven locations in Paris and outside the national stadium to the north of the city could only have been carried out by an organization which had time to prepare, accumulate weapons and explosives and plan.

It will of course be tempting to link the attacks to events in the last few days, especially the death in a U.S. drone strike of British Jihadi, Mohammed Emwazi, the executioner from the ISIS videos, less than 24 hours earlier, but no group could have carried out such an operation that quickly. The news of Emwazi's death may have spurred them to action, but the attackers and arms would have been in place already, preparing for their moment.

The implications for France and for security forces throughout Europe are massive. Despite the major beefing-up of surveillance of suspected jihadists within the continent and especially the monitoring of volunteers who had gone to fight for the Islamist groups in Syria, since the attacks on the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine and the Hyper Cacher supermarket in Paris in January, it seems that at least one terror group has succeeded in maintaining a significant presence and level of organization within France throughout this period. There are serious questions to be asked of all governments in Western Europe, as for what has been done so far to counter this threat and what can still be done. One main dilemma will be how to intensify security and intelligence efforts without curtailing vital democratic freedoms.

No group has yet taken responsibility for the attacks. The obvious suspects at this point will of course be the two main Islamist networks – Al-Qaida and ISIS - as they are the ones who were involved in the January attacks and other operations in Europe over the last decade. The level of coordination involved in this attack would point to Al-Qaida, though the last time anything came near to this scale was the London underground train and bus bombings in July 2005. Also Al-Qaida was thought to have been changing tactics recently and in 2013, its leader Ayman al Zawahiri warned against attacking targets where "innocent Muslims" may be hurt. ISIS would seem on some counts a more likely perpetrator at this point, however the group has never shown anything near this operational capacity outside of its Middle Eastern battlefields. Up to now, all attacks in Europe ascribed to Jihadists identifying with ISIS have been the actions of "lone-wolves" who had either returned from Syria or were unable to travel there.

The Paris attacks came nearly two weeks after the crash of a Russian airliner in Sinai, killing 224 passengers and crewmembers. The near-consensus among intelligence services in the west is that the cause of the crash was a bomb planted on the plane by an ISIS affiliate in Sinai. If the night's attacks are connected to the Islamic State, it will mean a shift in strategy, away from focusing solely on building its Caliphate in the Levant and towards expanding their Jihad to the countries currently attacking its forces in Syria and Iraq. Russia two weeks ago, France last night - both nations with fighter jets operating against them.

Was this the moment in which the Syrian war was fully exported to Europe. For those, like Russia, and some in the west, who have been calling for a more forceful international campaign against ISIS, disregarding the original cause for chaos in Syria - the bloody mass-massacred by the Assad regime of civilians and rebel groups, last night in Paris will be a boost to their arguments. It will certainly have added an entirely new level of urgency to the talks scheduled to take place today (Saturday) in Vienna on attempts to arrange a ceasefire and political transition in Syria - though these talks may not seem very relevant at this moment.

Another effect of the Paris attacks will be on the ongoing debate within Europe on how to respond to the massive influx of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees flowing in to the continent. There is no reason whatsoever at this moment to connect the attacks to the refugees, fleeing death and chaos themselves. But when dozens of civilians have just been gunned down in one of Europe's main capital cities, reason may be in short supply.