Paris terror attacks: Shifting tragedies

Paris attacks reveal chilling reach of ISIS

People joining hands around the Monument a la Republique yesterday. The Paris attacks have revived the spectre of terror acts with a relatively large number of perpetrators.
People joining hands around the Monument a la Republique yesterday. The Paris attacks have revived the spectre of terror acts with a relatively large number of perpetrators.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Central leadership likely called the shots in terror strikes against France, Lebanon and Russia

WASHINGTON • When the ISIS stormed onto the scene in Syria and Iraq, the terror group seemed focused on seizing territory in its own neighbourhood. But in the last two weeks, the so-called soldiers of the caliphate appear to have demonstrated a chilling reach, with terrorist attacks against Russia, in Lebanon and now in France.

The seemingly synchronised assaults that turned Paris into a war zone last Friday came just days after a bombing targeted a Shi'ite district of Beirut controlled by Iran's ally, Hizbollah, and a Russian passenger jet was downed over Egypt.

The rapid succession of strikes suggested that the regional war has turned into a global one.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has, for the first time, engaged in what appears to be a centrally planned campaign of terrorist attacks aimed at inflicting huge civilian casualties on distant territory, forcing many counter-terrorism officials in the United States and Europe to recalibrate their assessment of the group.

"They have crossed some kind of Rubicon," said Mr William McCants, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and author of The ISIS Apocalypse. "They have definitely shifted in their thinking about targeting their enemies."

When ISIS' Egyptian arm claimed responsibility for blowing up a Russian charter plane over Sinai two weeks ago, some analysts wondered if the group's Sinai Province of the Islamic State had acted on its own and leapt out in front, even at the cost of risking a Russian military backlash on the parent group in Syria and Iraq.

But the attacks last week in Paris and Beirut, which ISIS also said it carried out, appear to have settled that question and convinced even sceptics that the central leadership was calling the shots.

"There is a radical change of perception by the terrorists that they can now act in Paris just as they act in Syria or Baghdad," said Mr Mathieu Guidere, a terrorism specialist at the University of Toulouse. "With this action, a psychological barrier has been broken."

Indeed, at a time when many Western officials were most concerned about ISIS-inspired lone- wolf attacks - terrifying in their randomness but relatively low in casualties - the attacks in Paris have revived the spectre of coordinated, high-casualty attacks planned with the involvement of a relatively large number of perpetrators.

The US and European authorities said the Paris assault bore the hallmarks of complex attacks conducted by Al-Qaeda, or of the Mumbai plot in 2008, when 10 militants carried out a series of 12 shootings and bombings in the Indian city, lasting four days and killing 164 people.

"Their goal is an unconventional urban guerilla war," said Mr Franck Chaix, an officer of the Gendarmerie, France's semi-military police force, and a former head of its special intervention force, GIGN.

Al-Qaeda, ISIS' principal forebear, built its identity around spectacular terrorist attacks because its leaders saw themselves as insurgents seeking to overturn Arab governments that they deemed apostates. Al-Qaeda wanted to bait the West into military actions that would destabilise Arab states.

ISIS, in contrast, has increasingly styled itself a state and, in many ways, behaved like one. The ideology and motivation behind the change may be opaque for years.

Analysts suggest that the messianic and apocalyptic side of its ideology may have got the better of the pragmatic impulse that had previously appeared to guide the group's expansion.

Or, experts say, ISIS may be seeking to use large terrorist attacks the way a more conventional power might use an air force as a tool of its defence policy, to retaliate against enemy attacks and to seek to deter them.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2015, with the headline 'Paris attacks reveal chilling reach of ISIS'. Print Edition | Subscribe