- Goal is to deter military action, terrorism experts say
- Operation was planned from abroad, with wider objectives
The terror attacks in Paris on Friday and the assaults in the city in January both involved Islamic radicals murdering civilians. That’s where the similarities end.
Unlike the killings at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo -- that often made the Prophet Muhammad a cartoon subject -- and at a kosher grocery store, the attacks on Friday were meticulously prepared, were aimed at the entire nation and have greater international implications, terror analysts said.
“Charlie Hebdo was the decision of lone wolves who wanted to avenge what they saw as an insult to their religion, and wanted revenge against Jews,” said Boaz Ganor, co-founder and executive director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel. “This latest attack is aimed at deterring military action by Europeans against ISIS. Here we have a major organized operation.”
As French police try to piece together how teams of coordinated gunmen and suicide bombers could strike at the heart of Europe once again, the leaders of the G-20 group of major economies discussed ways to tackle terror groups like Islamic State, or ISIS as the group is known. France, Britain, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, and the Netherlands have joined U.S.-led air operations against ISIS in Iraq. France is the only European country that’s also bombing in Syria.
“We will act on all fronts to destroy Islamic State,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls said in an interview on RTL radio Monday. “We know that there are operations that were being prepared and that are being prepared again, not only against France but also against other European countries.”
The series of attacks on Friday claimed the lives of at least 129 people and injured more than 300. Three men blew themselves up outside the national soccer stadium, Stade de France, outside Paris, where a game was under way between France and Germany. Another team of men drove to multiple locations in east-central Paris, firing hundreds of rounds from Kalashnikov rifles at bar and restaurant patrons. And a third went to Le Bataclan, where 89 people were slain before police stormed the concert hall.
Although authorities have the remains of seven of the attackers, the total number who either participated in or supported the assaults is still unclear. The attackers used machine guns and had identical suicide-bombing vests. At least three cars were used in the assaults, and a Syrian passport was found near the bodies of one of the suicide bombers. Belgian authorities arrested seven people in relation to the attacks.
Contrast that with the three home-grown perpetrators of the attacks earlier this year.
On Jan. 7, two brothers entered the offices of Charlie Hebdo and killed 11 people at the satirical magazine that over the years had published cartoons deemed by some to offend Muslims. A third terrorist, Amedy Coulibaly killed four people as he took hostages at a Kosher supermarket in Paris. The attackers were all slain in police raids. The brothers claimed they were acting on behalf of al-Qaeda in Yemen. Coulibaly said in a video he left that he was acting on behalf of ISIS.
The Kouachi brothers who murdered the people at Charlie Hebdo and a policeman outside the paper’s office, didn’t seek to harm anyone else. When they hijacked a car two days after the attacks, they let the owner go after waiting for him to get his dog out of the back seat. When they were holed up at a printing plant where the police later killed them, they released their only hostage.
The teams on Friday were more merciless. The one driving around Paris fired at least 100 rounds at each of the three restaurants they targeted. Another team methodically executed concert-goers before a police raid ended their assault. Reports noted that the third team of suicide bombers had sought to enter the crowded soccer stadium but didn’t get past security.
“With Charlie Hebdo and the kosher market, they had specific targets,” said Louis Caprioli, the ex-head of DST, France’s former anti-terrorism unit, and now an adviser to Paris-based security consultants Groupe GEOS. “Here it’s all of France that is under attack. I fear the worst is yet to come.”
While millions of French people marched in January to protest the attacks and show national unity, there were debates in the country about whether Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons mocking Islam went too far. Whoever planned Friday’s attacks won’t care that no one in France is likely to excuse killing restaurant goers and spectators because their goals were to terrify, Caprioli said.
Ganor said the Paris attacks were probably linked to last month’s apparent bombing of a Russian plane in Sinai that killed 224, and last week’s bomb that killed at least 44 in a Shia neighborhood in Beirut.
ISIS has much larger means than earlier Islamic groups. About 20,000 people from 50 countries have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS, according to the London-based Center for the Study of Radicalization, of which about 4,000 are from Western Europe.
“The number of returning fighters means that ISIS has a much larger group of potential supporters in European societies than al-Qaeda did with its small cells, which still planned and in some cases carried out devastating attacks,” Robin Niblett, director of London-based Chatham House said in a commentary. “This factor amplifies the potential risks to European governments of escalating their military intervention.”
The shift to larger operations could raise some dangers for IS.
“The shift from lone wolf attacks to organized attacks has a downside for the terrorists,” Ganor said. “When there are many more people involved, it’s much harder to keep under the radar of security services.”
That, however, didn’t happen in Paris.