High-Profile Attacks Suggest an Increasingly Global Focus for Islamic State

The Paris attacks, linked to the Islamic State, along with suicide attacks in Beirut and a Russian airliner bombing, point to global ambitions by ISIS.

Bullet holes and marks are seen on the window of 'Le Carillon''restaurant on November 14, 2015 in Paris, France. At least 120 people have been killed and over 200 injured, 80 of which seriously, following a series of terrorist attacks in the French capital. (Photo by Pierre Suu/Getty Images)
Bullet holes and marks are seen on the window of 'Le Carillon''restaurant on November 14, 2015 in Paris, France. At least 120 people have been killed and over 200 injured, 80 of which seriously, following a series of terrorist attacks in the French capital. (Photo by Pierre Suu/Getty Images) Photo: Pierre Suu/Getty Images

IN A STATEMENT issued Saturday morning, the terrorist group the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the six coordinated attacks that hit Paris on Friday evening, stating that they had been conducted as retribution for France’s participation in an international military coalition targeting its forces in Iraq and Syria. In its statement, the group warned that the attacks would be “just the beginning” of the group’s retaliatory offensive.

In the wake of deadly attacks claimed by the Islamic State against a Russian airliner in Egypt as well as a marketplace in Beirut, terrorism analysts are increasingly concerned that the group is developing capabilities to expand its reach globally, shifting its focus from the Middle East and North Africa region to a much larger arena.

William McCants, an expert on Islamic militant groups at the Brookings Institute, says that the attacks represent a major change in the Islamic State’s strategy, which had heretofore been almost exclusively focused on its enemies in the MENA region. “Although Islamic State had already tried to inspire attacks in Europe, including in France, it had refrained from sending trained operatives abroad. The ISIS attackers operating in Paris certainly seem trained, and the death toll is higher as a consequence.”

In 2004, a militant named Abu Bakr al-Naji published an influential jihadist strategy document, The Management of Savagery. Testimony received from current and former ISIS members in Syria has indicated that the document is read widely among Islamic State cadres.

McCants sees signs of its influence in the Paris attacks, particularly with regard to so-called qualitative operations, high-profile international attacks undertaken to “grab people’s attention,” and conducted under the direction of central commanders. “Although we don’t know much about ISIS’s relationship with its regional affiliates, the level of coordination suggests to me that the attacks were coordinated with their central leadership,” McCants said. “These are what The Management of Savagery would call ‘qualitative strikes,’ high-profile attacks that aren’t undertaken without the approval of high command.”

Emile Nakhleh, a former CIA intelligence officer and director of the agency’s political Islam division, said that the attacks must be viewed in light of recent efforts by the Islamic State to strike civilian targets globally. “In a short time there has been the bombing of the Russian airliner in Egypt, the suicide attacks in South Beirut, and the attacks in Paris. If it’s verified that all these were directed by Islamic State’s central leadership, that would be particularly alarming,” Nakhleh said. “A direct connection between these attacks would confirm to us that ISIS is not only expanding its scope of operations, but consciously developing the expertise needed to conduct sophisticated attacks outside of its heartland of Syria and Iraq.”

Despite ISIS’ claim of responsibility, Nakhleh believes the possibility still exists that the attack could have been the work of homegrown extremists inspired by the group, or even a franchise of al Qaeda. Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen in particular has an established track record of carrying out such attacks against Western targets, including a February attack in Paris against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. “Both Islamic State and al Qaeda have regional branches that have exploited disasters in failing states to give them a base for such attacks,” Nakhleh said, adding that both groups also have networks in North Africa that would be useful in organizing a relatively sophisticated assault such as this within France.

Also alarming was the use of suicide bombers in the deadly attacks on Friday. Although in recent years this tactic has become depressingly common in countries such as Iraq and Syria, wracked by civil war, such attacks have few precedents in Europe. Analysis of the bodies of a number of the assailants, including those who attacked the Stade de France football stadium, have confirmed that the attackers wore vests armed with peroxide-based explosives, packed with nails in order to inflict maximum civilian casualties.

In the wake of the attacks, Paris chief prosecutor François Molins has said authorities have managed to identify at least one of the attackers as a 29-year-old French citizen from the outer suburbs of Paris, a man who had been previously known to security services as having been “radicalized.” Officials have further confirmed that the attackers had organized themselves into three separate teams, which struck almost simultaneously at their respective targets.

“We need more information, about not just the perpetrators but the planning of this attack. This was a highly coordinated operation, which leads to pressing questions about how much preparation it must have taken,” said Nakhleh. “I am concerned about how these attackers managed to conduct weeks, or potentially even months, of planning and training while they were on the French authorities’ radar. It’s baffling to me.”

Join The Conversation