What Paris Taught Us About the Islamic State

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Before evening fell, last Friday seemed a good day in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). U.S. government officials felt confident a drone strike killed “Jihadi John”, a.k.a. Mohammed Emwazi, the group’s poster child. The targeted killing of a key ISIL propagandist added to good news from Sinjar, Iraq, where Kurdish forces retook the mountainside town months after it became a symbol of the Islamic State’s barbaric violence. President Obama, who has cautiously talked about the glacial progress in the fight against ISIL, proclaimed to ABC News, “From the start our goal has been first to contain, and we have contained them.”

Only hours after Obama’s remarks, eight men operating in three teams attacked multiple targets across Paris using automatic weapons and suicide belts in one of the most deadly and sophisticated terrorist attacks in European history. Timed on a Friday night to achieve the greatest impact, the attackers targeted a soccer stadium at game time, a music hall, and a range of other popular targets. In the Bataclan theater, victims described how attackers moved calmly through the audience firing at targets one at a time, eventually killing 80 people who had come to see a rock music show. The kit and experience of the assailants quickly suggested a highly organized effort. ISIL claimed responsibility for the attacks by Saturday morning.

The Paris attacks followed the group’s purported downing of a Russian airliner and occurred on the same day as two Islamic State suicide bombings against Hezbollah in Beirut. These three high-profile international terrorist attacks by ISIL undermine claims of successfully containing the group. Many forces currently conspire to generate the Islamic State’s current wave of terrorism, and we should expect more violence.

The Consequences of Containing the Islamic State

Al Shabaab’s violent path in Somalia over the past few years is instructive of what we currently see with the Islamic State. By 2010, al Shabaab had reached its peak before a containment strategy slowly shrunk its harshly enforced sharia state and pushed it out of key urban strongholds. As the group retracted, its strategy and operations shifted from conventional fighting and insurgency to terrorist attacks, first in Somali cities like Mogadishu before expanding regionally throughout the group’s support network and support base in the Horn of Africa. Today, al Shabaab holds a fraction of the territory it once dominated, but continues to launch fierce terrorist attacks against soft targets. The lesson is this: If an extremist group that has seized territory starts to lose it, it will be highly incentivized to turn to terrorist operations that allow for maximizing effects at a lower cost.

The Islamic State propelled its recruitment and resourcing over the past three years by sustaining the initiative, growing its state through battlefield successes and acquisitions. But the group has now peaked: It is losing territory, many of its fighters are dying in battle, defections from their ranks continue to increase, recruitment flows are slower and smaller, and new regional Islamic State affiliates in countries like Libya and Egypt now provide a range of options for potential recruits to join a group locally rather than travel to Syria.

To sustain its brand and supporting global fan base, the Islamic State needs to show success. If it cannot achieve battlefield victories and broadcast them on social media, then its affiliates and global network need to pick up the slack with terrorist attacks that capture the imagination of mass media. President Obama was correct when he said that the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq has been contained militarily. But a glut of foreign fighters departing Syria will power waves of violence in the name of the Islamic State for many years to come. As the Islamic State retracts in the Levant, we should expect an uptick in terrorist attacks across the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.

Bleed Out: When Foreign Fighters Return Home

France more so than any other European country suffers from a serious case of foreign fighter “bleed out.” This term comes from the theory that foreign fighters who traveled to wage jihad in Syria and Iraq will eventually return home as well-trained soldiers indoctrinated to carry out violence on their homelands. Up until the Paris attacks last week, the data had not yet confirmed mass waves of foreign fighter returnee violence, but this may now be changing.

The West stood by for years as an unprecedented number of foreign fighter recruits poured into Syria, largely joining al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al Nusra and its rival, the Islamic State. Many of these fighters were killed, but others have already returned months or years ago. Others continue to trickle back home as the Islamic State contracts in Syria and Iraq, sometimes making their way back disguised as refugees. These former foreign fighters remain the best recruiters of new Western fighters and the most effective mobilizers for orchestrating domestic terrorist attacks. Early reports suggest one of the attackers carried a Syrian passport and transited through the Greek island of Leros back to Europe. This suggests the assailant was a former foreign fighter or an operative dispatched directly from the Islamic State. If true, this might explain in part how the attackers were able to execute such a sophisticated plan.

Bottled Up: When Extremists Can’t Get To Syria, But Still Want To Fight

Success in curbing foreign fighter flows into Syria has also created a deadly undercurrent in European countries. The Islamic State’s global fan base remains engaged online and former foreign fighters continue to return to disaffected neighborhoods telling tales of jihadi glory. Young radicalized recruits who once might have traveled to Syria to join the fight now sit idle, bottled up in extremist pressure cookers waiting for their chance to participate in the jihad. Today, the European Union hosts hundreds of mobilized recruits with nowhere to execute violence except at home. Early reports note one attacker as a suspected extremist going back as far as 2010. It would not be surprising if more of the Paris assailants turn out to be young boys inspired by the Islamic State and their foreign fighter friends, and we should be quite concerned about what violence might be coming on the horizon.

Iceberg Theory Of Terror Plots

The operation in Paris illustrates a serious terrorism facilitation problem in Europe. In the ocean, icebergs are known for their hidden size: What one sees above the water usually presents only 10 percent of the iceberg’s total mass, the other 90 percent lurking under the water. The same might be said of terrorist plots: For every attacker, there are usually three to four additional people who helped facilitate the plot by providing weapons, safe passage, reconnaissance, communication, and coordination. That the eight attackers in Paris used more explosive belts than ever before seen in the West suggests a sizeable European terrorist facilitation network. The iceberg theory of terrorist plots suggests we should look for two, three, or possibly four dozen extremist facilitators and supporters between Syria and France. This same network is likely already supporting other attacks in the planning phase. Within two days of the Paris attacks, we saw reports of arrests and search warrants in Belgium and Germany. Expect many more such leads and arrests in the coming days and weeks.

The United Kingdom and France: Inverse Approaches to Countering Extremism

Ten years ago, London suffered through their bombing spree and as a result pursued a massive program to counter violent extremism throughout the country. The PREVENT program has scaled up and down, but has continuously sought to pursue a more multi-cultural approach to counter extremist messaging and detect those pockets of extremism producing individuals committed to violence. The PREVENT strand is accompanied by a PURSUE strand for interdicting extremists already committed to violence. While results have been mixed and efforts costly, the United Kingdom — despite a few extremist incidents and a flood of foreign fighters heading off to Syria — has thus far been able to avoid another large scale terrorist attack against the homeland. The U.K.’s separation from the European mainland and resulting Syrian refugee flows, along with its controversial foreign fighter citizenship revocation program, make it more difficult for foreign fighters to return home. The U.K. system may not be perfect, but at least the nation acknowledges and attempts to address its extremism problem.

France, on the other hand, has pursued an inverse strategy to the United Kingdom. Up until the Charlie Hebdo assault in January 2015, the French relied on their vaunted internal and external intelligence apparatuses to flush out any potential leads of extremist violence. Until the Syrian conflict became such a mobilizer for extremist recruitment, the French approach appeared sound. The system failed due to insufficient capacity, as Western inaction in Syria resulted in countries like France having far more extremist suspects and returning fighters than their intelligence services can possibly track. The explosives smuggling and black market weapon acquisition by the Paris attackers should have been detected, especially after the Charlie Hebdo attack. In the wake of France’s 9/11, what will be the French solution for reducing the trend of extremist violence? Will France pursue heavy-handed policies or choose the softer approach of the United Kingdom?

Al Qaeda Tried Too Hard — ISIL Gets It

The few remaining senior leaders of al Qaeda must be scratching their heads. Their complex hijackings and bombings required months or years of planning, were often foiled or failed, and rarely achieved what the ISIL network has seemingly mastered in only a matter of months. Following the model cast by Lashkar E Taiba in its 2008 Mumbai attacks, Islamic State affiliates and inspired followers have learned that simple armed assaults create plenty of casualties and generate the same amount of fear as complex, sophisticated attacks. For years, counterterrorism analysts have wondered when terrorists would follow the example of the D.C. snipers in 2002 and the 2008 Mumbai attacks, both of which hammered soft targets and captured the media cycle and Western audiences for days, weeks, and even months. The answer appears clear now, as ISIL has figured out how to strike at the heart of its adversaries. Because the rewards for the Paris operation have been significant, the world should expect ISIL and other terrorist groups to pursue this approach for many years to come. It’s repeatable, cheap, and effective.

ISIL and the Paris Attacks: Two Big Questions Remain

The mass media continues to roll out their terrorism playbook from last decade, portraying the Islamic State and its network much in the way they portrayed al Qaeda and its affiliates. For news headlines, it is easier and more exciting to present the Islamic State as one big powerful behemoth. Yet evidence that the Islamic State operates in a centralized fashion like al Qaeda has not yet surfaced.

Two big questions remain after the downing of a Russian jetliner, suicide bombings against Hezbollah in Lebanon, and now the slaughter of civilians in Paris. First, are these attacks directed, networked, or inspired? Directed attacks are those designated and supported by ISIL high command in Syria and Iraq. Networked attacks arise from former foreign fighters from Syria and Iraq or newly minted ISIL affiliates sustaining light contact with ISIL high command while bringing on new local recruits to execute plots of their own design. Inspired attacks arise from those global supporters of ISIL mobilized by the group’s success to plan, resource, and execute attacks in the group’s name, although they may lack direct communication with the group’s leaders or affiliates.

To know this, the best information to look for in open source comes from news leaks about terrorist communications. Terrorist “chatter” — their communication volume so often discussed in the news — can indicate different things. Pre-attack chatter usually suggests pre-meditation in the form of command, control, and direction from Islamic State headquarters in Syria and Iraq out to operatives deployed around the world. Post-attack chatter is also often present after a directed attack as operatives and the facilitation network communicate back to the boss. However, post-attack chatter without pre-attack chatter may suggest a networked attack, in which an affiliate or group of former foreign fighters working with inspired recruits put together and execute their own plots and then communicate back to Islamic State headquarters. Al Qaeda was far more inclined to pursue the directed model of terrorist attacks through affiliates, but the Islamic State’s command-and-control preference remains undetermined, which points to the second big question about this recent spate of attacks.

Is the Islamic State pursuing a strategy with the selection of its regional and international targets? By striking Russia, hitting Hezbollah, and antagonizing France, the Islamic State has brought a wide range of enraged enemies to bear on them. Why do this? Al Qaeda always pursued a more nimble approach, carefully picking and choosing its adversaries and trying to drive wedges between counterterrorist allies or drag adversaries into protracted engagements to mobilize Muslim populations against apostate rulers and the West.

By contrast, the Islamic State seems to be at war with the entire world. Is this targeting logic the result of some crazed apocalyptic ideological thinking? Or does this broad targeting come from a lack of command, control, and direction the Islamic State has over its rapidly acquired affiliates and legions of networked fan boys who demand action first and strategy second? Until we understand the answer to these questions, it will be difficult to know whether the Islamic State really is one big organization or to anticipate where the group might strike next. The aftermath of the Paris attacks and the upcoming investigation will certainly be quite revealing of this dynamic.


Clint Watts is a Fox Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at The George Washington University.  Prior to his current work as a security consultant, Clint served as a U.S. Army infantry officer, a FBI Special Agent on a Joint Terrorism Task Force and as the Executive Officer of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.