The Paris Attacks and Future Operations against Daesh

December 16, 2015
The Paris Attacks and Future Operations against Daesh
Christopher Griffin
Christopher Griffin Non-Resident Fellow Strategic Studies and Counterinsurgency

The terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November killed 130 people and injured 351. In this essay, I will analyze the events of that evening, the French and European counterterrorism response, and will argue finally that any lasting solution to this problem needs to be in the form of large-scale ground operations in Syria and Iraq.

The attacks by Daesh in Paris took place at six different sites in the capital, beginning with suicide bombings outside of the Stade de France north of Paris, where the French national team was playing Germany. François Hollande was present. In total, three suicide bombings took place at the Stade de France, which also killed an innocent bystander. At nearly the same time, another terrorist commando unit began to carry out attacks on cafés and restaurants in the 10th and 11th arrondissements (districts) in central Paris. The worst single attack then took place when attackers entered the Bataclan theatre, where 1,500 people had gathered for a concert, and began shooting. By the time the French intervention forces had finished clearing the theatre, 89 people had been killed.

While the choice of the places attacked in Paris could appear random to the casual observer, they were carefully planned for the maximum symbolic value. Some analysts claim that Daesh is lashing out at everyone all at once to bring about an apocalyptic battle between it and the West. The Paris attacks, however, may contradict this hypothesis, as they were carried out in order to destabilize French society in order to attempt to knock the country out of the war.

Daesh directly attacked the French people and French culture on 13 November. The main targets in the city proper were young people, given that the cafés were popular spots for students and young professionals to go out on Friday nights. It also called into question the safety of one of French people’s favorite pastimes, spending time with friends and family at cafés. This was a direct assault on the French way of life. The attack on the theatre was the same. The stadium bombings, in which fortunately the explosives detonated prematurely, were surely intended to kill large numbers of attendees at the soccer game, which includes large numbers of families. The attacks struck directly to the heart of French society, which was surely Daesh’s plan. In this way, Daesh surely hoped to create divisions in France and stigmatize the Muslim population. CNN also contributed to the stigmatization by asking inappropriate questions of the French Muslim community regarding the attacks. The terrorists also attacked French diversity, however, in that the people killed included Muslims as well as many other religions, and even nationalities, which may have proven to be a miscalculation by Daesh if it brings about greater national unity in France.

The discovery of what was likely a passport of a Syrian migrant near one of the suicide bombers in at the Stade de France was also surely planted as a way to turn France and other Western countries against the migrants, another source of division.  According to a number of news reports, police in Serbia arrested a migrant with the exact same passport, meaning it probably came from the same forger. The evidence that authorities were meant by Daesh to find the passport of a migrant has not stopped 31 American states from refusing to accept Syrian migrants. Senator Rand Paul even went so far as to carry the stigmatization to the entire French population, suggesting extensive checks on all French citizens entering the U.S. The vote by the U.S. House of Representatives on 20 November to restrict the entry of Syrian and Iraqi migrants into the U.S. (which is blocked in the Senate and will likely be vetoed by Obama), will likely also create divisions between the Western powers. Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims entering the U.S. after the San Bernardino shooting by Daesh-affiliated attackers on 2 December is exactly the type of division that the insurgent group is seeking.

Daesh, overall, however, sought to instill a fear of normal day-to-day activities in France. The sites attacked were also chosen for other symbolic purposes. The attacks took place very close to Charlie Hebdo headquarters, which was surely an attempt by Daesh to demonstrate that they could attack in the same place as the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) attackers in January despite increased security. Rue de Charonne and nearby rue Richard-Lenoir were also symbolic sites. The Charonne metro station was the site of a demonstration on 8 February 1962 by French unions against the violence of the Algerian War, which had spilled over into France. Nine union demonstrators were killed by French security forces. The Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA), primarily seeking vengeance for France’s colonial occupation of Algeria, attacked a market on the rue Richard-Lenoir on 3 September 1995, which is very close to Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan.  This likely also indicates a competition between terrorist groups to launch large attacks, borne out by the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Al-Mourabitoun attack against a hotel in Bamako, Mali, on 20 November, exactly one week after the Paris attacks.

If the attack in Paris was aimed at getting France to pull out of the war, this interpretation goes a long way toward explaining the attacks in many directions at once against multiple countries. Daesh may be choosing to attack the most salient threats to its existence in spectacular ways to influence public opinion and turn them against policies of direct intervention. The attack on Russian tourists through the destruction of an airliner may have been aimed at getting the Russian people to put pressure on Putin to relax his support for Assad. The attacks in Lebanon on the eve of the Paris attacks, which were aimed at a fief of Hezbollah, were also likely intended to dent support for Hezbollah’s support for Assad. The San Bernardino shootings were also likely intended to increase the American sense of insecurity and lead the public as well as Congress to question the government’s policy in Syria and Iraq. Terrorist attacks aimed at changing public opinion have been successful in the past, notably in the withdrawal of Spain from Iraq following the Al Qaeda bombing of Atocha train station in 2004. It is also a strategy of deterrence, as Daesh is showing it has the capacity for a major, sustained international terrorist campaign, if its adversaries persist in attacking it in Syria and Iraq. Attacking its most powerful enemies is a risky strategy for Daesh, as it could turn into a major offensive against the group, but if successful, would greatly facilitate Daesh’s projects for political domination in the Middle East. Without airstrikes to hamper its operations, Daesh will have a freer hand to directly destroy its adversaries in Syria and Iraq in ground offensives.

The French Internal Counterterrorism Response

There has been a great deal of talk about the terrorist attack as an “intelligence failure,” in both France and Belgium. This may be somewhat unfair, as the French government claims to have stopped six attacks since spring 2015. Counterterrorism experience shows, unfortunately, that it is generally not possible to stop all attacks, especially when the adversary shows the capacity to keep launching attacks over a sustained period of time. On the other hand, French security forces showed considerable skill in the assault on the Bataclan theater. The French élite RAID (resistance, assistance, intervention, deterrence) force in the police, the BRI (Brigades de recherche et d’intervention), from the French judicial police, and the GIGN (Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale), all had experience in neutralizing the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher terrorists in January. British Colonel Tim Collins, who worked with French counterterrorism forces, describes them as ‘among the best in the world’. The follow-up intervention in Saint-Denis, a northern Paris suburb, on 18 November, which killed the mastermind of the attack, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, again showed a high-level of competence, as the does the absence of civilian casualties in the assault.

The problem highlighted here, however, is that French security forces suffer from a lack of manpower, as I argued in a previous post after the terrorist attack in southeastern France in June. The French government is moving to correct this situation by announcing the creation of 5,000 new jobs in the police and the gendarmerie as well as proposing changes to the constitution to make it easier to arrest suspected terrorists. The State of Emergency declared in France on 14 November and which the Parliament voted to continue for three more months also makes it easier to arrest suspected terrorists, search for weapons, monitor communications and control the borders. It limits public gatherings, and a number of major events in France that bring together large numbers of people have been cancelled.

Further coordination and intelligence sharing will be necessary at the European and the international level to prevent future attacks. This is particularly important in the case of Belgium, where the attack was planned. Brussels went on to high alert soon after the Paris attacks, shutting much of the city down for nearly a week in fear of an imminent attack. The EU countries and Belgium itself need to look more into the question of why so many jihadists come from Belgium, and why the country has not been able to get a better handle on its weapons trafficking problems.

After November 13, France did not hesitate to invoke Article 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty, which obliges the other members of the European Union to help a country that has been attacked. European border security will be tightened, including new checks on EU citizens, and the EU countries are moving toward better sharing of information regarding airline passengers travelling on the continent. The U.S. has agreed to share more intelligence with France, but has refused to make it a full member of the ‘five eyes’ intelligence-sharing system, even after the attacks.[1]

The French government is strengthening its internal counterterrorism forces and intelligence sharing, but what needs to be done is to address the problem of Daesh at its source.

Taking the fight to Daesh

The popular idea that an insurgency cannot be defeated with military means is a myth. The problem, however, is bringing adequate resources and forces to bear in order to defeat an insurgent force.[2] France tried to quickly mobilize the international community with a UN Resolution that aims at fighting not only Daesh but also the Syrian Al Qaeda affiliate, Al-Nusra. The resolution does not, on the other hand, cite Chapter VII, which authorizes the use of force, but the document provides some international legitimacy for coalition military efforts in Syria and Iraq. France takes the UN seriously, and almost always tries to get international approval for its interventions.

In a previous post, I mentioned the difficulty of eradicating Daesh, as it is only one faction in a complex civil war in Syria, and also the need to remove the threat of Assad’s loyalist forces at the same time. What has changed since is that Russia has agreed to support French efforts against Daesh (while still supporting Assad for the moment), and Russian forces have increased their strikes on the insurgent group since 13 November. A further major change is the vote on 2 December by the British Government to join in the coalition attacking targets in Syria. France, with U.S. aid, has also stepped up its strikes in Syria in retaliation for the Paris attacks and sent its aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, to the region. Obama, however, has ruled out the possibility of sending large numbers of American troops for major combat operations in Syria and Iraq. The grand coalition that France wanted to create to destroy Daesh, however, has not really materialized. Instead, Russia, the U.S. and France have deepened their cooperation and intensified airstrikes, but the strategy of degrading Daesh through attrition from the air seems to remain the same. The inability of this strategy to bring about decisive results against Daesh since 2014 should be clear, however, with the significant increase in Daesh-sponsored international terror attacks in 2015.

The reluctance to take the war to Daesh on the ground is an error. Despite some setbacks on the ground for the insurgent group, such as the seizure of Sinjar and setbacks in Ramadi[3], the Paris attacks were not necessarily a sign of weakness. The attacks may have been in fact a sign of strength, aiming at pushing adversaries out of the war and making the insurgent group more attractive for recruits. Another problem with the argument that Daesh was lashing out in response to recent battlefield setbacks was that the operations in Sinai, Lebanon and Paris (and possibly San Bernardino) surely took months of planning. The decisions to act were made almost certainly much earlier.

The fact that Daesh has constructed itself as a state that bases its power on territorial control may actually make it easier to defeat, as there is a defined state apparatus and territory to target.[4] A RAND report written after the Paris attacks argues that ‘Conventional American ground forces (with or without North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies) can shatter ISIL’s military formations’, but argues against that strategy, saying Daesh will just move underground, and we will get into ‘a long-term pacification problem’. There is a considerable reluctance to get involved in another major conflict after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is at least partially driving the coalition strategy in Syria.

The U.S. military, however, from observations in Iraq, say that the lessons of the current conflict point to the effectiveness of conventional tactics and units in the fight against Daesh, which suggests that Daesh is also trying to fight conventionally. If Daesh has a state apparatus, and is looking for conventional battles, the coalition should give deploy adequate forces to fight Daesh on the ground. It is likely that in such a campaign, Daesh, given its limited forces, would not prevail. As for the argument that Daesh would move underground, this is possible, but would be difficult for them, as a major military defeat would deprive the insurgent group of much of its territory, its urban government apparatus, its ‘citizens’, much of its financing, its military forces and probably many of its recruits once its vulnerability became clear. It will take a great number of ground troops to accomplish this goal, but it is possible.

To conclude, if a ground offensive against Daesh is undertaken, two fundamental questions must be asked first:

  • What will happen in Syria after a defeat of Daesh (and probably the fall of Assad at one point or another)? The fundamental mistake in Iraq and Afghanistan was the lack of a plan for what happens after the war, which is absolutely necessary in Syria.
  • What will be done about the Al Qaeda groups worldwide after the fall of Daesh? Al Qaeda must not be allowed to take advantage of the power vacuum that would result.

[1] The ‘five eyes’ are the U.S., the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand. The article linked to above argues that France is not a partner because it has a history of spying on the U.S.

[2] I discuss the possibilities for victory against an insurgency in the article, ‘From Limited War to Limited Victory: Clausewitz and Allied Strategy in Afghanistan’, Contemporary Security Policy (2014), 1-22.

[3] Sinjar, in Iraq, lies on Daesh supply lines between Raqqa and Mosul. The Kurds seized it on 13 November. Iraqi forces were, at the time of writing, making some progress against Daesh forces in Ramadi.

[4] German sources, citing captured Daesh documents, say that the structure of the Daesh state resembles that of the East German Stasi.