The Paris attacks came quickly on the heels of others outside the group’s base in Iraq and Syria. Is there a strategic logic to the Islamic State attacking beyond its borders?
ISIS could be a described as a more successful Al-Qaida (which means “the Base” in Arabic), since it has learnt from the mistakes and failures of Bin Laden’s matrix of global jihad. Like Al-Qaida/the Base, ISIS is developing within a complex dialectic: between the territorial “base” it controls physically (a territory the size of Jordan, located in Syria and Iraq), and the data “base” of its transnational networks, whether affiliated groups or sleeper cells.
Its expansion has a strongly messianic flavor — the organization portrays itself as the triumphant instrument of doomsday prophecies. It has struck, in very short sequence, Ankara, a Russian plane over the Sinai, the southern suburbs of Beirut, and Paris. This enhances its profile by demonstrating it can hit wherever and whenever it wants – a very strong incentive to its worldwide recruitment.
Why does the Islamic State seem to have singled out France among European countries for attack?
Firstly, because of what France represents, as a secular republic in which Europe’s largest Jewish community and its largest Muslim community coexist – which is absolute anathema to ISIS. Secondly, because France is the strongest supporter in Syria of a “third way” out of the deadly polarization between Assad and ISIS. Jihadis would love for France to stop demanding Assad’s removal. ISIS’s main enemy in Syria is not Assad but the revolutionary forces that France supports. The third reason is related to French “veterans” of the Iraqi jihad. They joined that fight as early as 2003 – with the active support of Assad’s intelligence services, since they passed through Syria to reach the jihadi stronghold of Falluja. Now, these French citizens have been embedded and promoted in the group’s hierarchy. The key figure in that regard is Boubaker al-Hakim, aka Abu Muqatel, who has repeatedly pledged to bring havoc and terror to France, since long before the latest attacks.
The investigation has come to focus on Belgian and French nationals in the Paris banlieue of Saint-Denis and the Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek. What is the milieu there the alleged attackers have come from?
ISIS organizes its recruits on a linguistic basis, whereas Al-Qaida had separate outfits for each nationality. French-speaking “volunteers” have gathered in specific training camps in northeast Syria, where a solid “brotherhood of arms” has developed among French, Belgian and North African radicals.
Molenbeek has been a hot spot for jihadi activism since 2001. The two assassins who killed Ahmad Shah Massoud [leader of the anti-Taliban Afghan resistance] two days before 9/11 came from there. Similarly, the French jihadi Mehdi Nemmouche was resident in Molenbeek before perpetrating the first ISIS attack on European soil, killing four people at the Brussels Jewish Museum in May 2014. One should not forget that the attacks in Paris on January 7–9 2015 were followed by attempts in Belgium, foiled by the local security forces, who killed two jihadis in Verviers.
Within Europe, the attacks seem poised to elevate far-right parties like Marine Le Pen’s National Front that have taken a strong stance against immigrants and the Schengen zone’s open borders. New security measures that could curtail civil liberties are also likely. What effect might that have on Europe’s efforts to counter the Islamic State and protect itself from future attacks?
With this massacre ISIS wanted to trigger a wave of violence against Muslims in France. This sinister plan has been frustrated, partly due to French citizens’ calm response, but also because so many Muslims were among the victims. On top of that, one has to remember that the vast majority of spontaneous intelligence tips about domestic jihadi activists emanate from the Muslim community.
The far-right National Front has tried to surf on a populist and possibly racist wave, but the tides are pretty low. As for more security, that is only natural after such tragedy. The state of emergency, which allows home raids in the middle of the night, was key to dismantling the Saint-Denis cell on November 18 and to eliminating Abdelhamid Abaaoud, mastermind of the coordinated terror attacks waged five days before. The issue now is not how this new climate could hinder Europe’s efforts against ISIS, but how Europe should at last answer repeated French calls for a robust anti-ISIS strategy. A European Court of Justice for anti-terrorism should be established as soon as possible, for instance.
France began bombing the Islamic State’s proclaimed capital of Raqqa after the attack, but initial reports suggested it mostly hit empty buildings, and it comes more than a year after the U.S.-led air campaign to defeat the group began. Diplomatic efforts, meanwhile, seem unlikely to yield a negotiated political transition in Syria anytime soon. Can Europe play a significant role in resolving the Syria conflict or degrading the Islamic State?
France had to react strongly and rapidly to the massacre, though it chose its targets carefully and has so far avoided civilian casualties. But bombings can never defeat ISIS, so an ambitious and multi-layered strategy has to be designed. It is long overdue, and France can only regret that its previous demands have been turned down not only by Russia, which fully supports the Assad regime, but also by America. Let us hope that France’s Black Friday, November 13, will trigger a new vision of the Syrian crisis, in which all parties put the issue of power in Damascus on hold, form a national unity council involving both the regime and the opposition, and work to liberate Raqqa. But the only Syrian ground forces that could deliver such a tremendous blow to ISIS are on the revolutionary side, so Russia would not only have to stop bombing them, but eventually support them from the air – a dramatic move that Moscow, not to mention Teheran, remains unwilling to consider at this stage.
President Hollande said he would not invoke Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which would obligate all the alliance’s members to aid one another in the event of an attack, but rather, a similar clause in the EU’s Treaty of Lisbon. What will that mean for European collective security, and major EU powers like Germany and the UK that have been reluctant to use force?
Allow me to go further than this NATO-Europe debate. The democratic uprising that has been shaking the Arab world since the beginning of 2011 is a historical game-changer of the same magnitude as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. And Europe has not designed a global policy to cope with such a formidable development, trying instead to deal on a case-by-case basis with the refugee crisis and jihadi violence, both direct results of the Syrian conflict and its regional repercussions. Europe has to rise to this historical challenge, which has profound implications for its security policy and its relationship to NATO.
Jean-Pierre Filiu is Professor of Middle East Studies at Sciences Po in Paris, and has held visiting professorships at both Columbia University and Georgetown University. His book The Apocalypse in Islam was awarded the main prize by the French History Association. His books and articles on the Arab world have been published in a dozen languages. He is the author of From Deep State to Islamic State: The Arab Counter-Revolution and its Jihadi Legacy, and Gaza: A History.