What the Paris Attacks Reveal About the New Threat of ISIS

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Indians Observe Candle Marches To Expresses Solidarity With Paris Victims
Muslims display anti-ISIS posters during a candlelight vigil for victims of the Paris attacks on November 15, 2015 in Bhopal, India.Photo: Mujeeb Faruqui/2015 Hindustan Times

One of the most unnerving aspects of Friday’s attacks in Paris, in combination with the recent ISIS-linked bombing in Beruit and crash of a Russian passenger jet over Egypt, is what they may mean about the capabilities of the militant group, now that it has demonstrated a capacity for such sophisticated, large-scale attacks on foreign targets. ISIS is clearly deploying a new strategy, and so far it seems to be succeeding with brutal efficacy. Indeed, as Slate’s Joshua Keating points out, the threat of ISIS has now reached a truly global level:

Previously, the prevailing understanding has been that unlike al-Qaida, the Islamic State, as its name suggests, was less concerned with organizing attacks on countries outside the Muslim world and prioritized the accumulation of territory and the enforcement of its own harsh brand of Islamic law within that territory, and the extermination of religious minorities. Its affiliates in Afghanistan, Yemen, Sinai, and Libya have followed a similar playbook.

Until recently, ISIS’s signature attacks against westerners were videotaped beheadings of hostages within its territory. This is why many in the intelligence community and law enforcement officials have maintained that despite ISIS’s rapid territorial gains and mass atrocities, al-Qaida and its affiliates are the greater threat to the United States. The events of this month are going to cause some serious reassessment of that conventional wisdom.

And as the New York Times’s Eric Schmitt and David Kirkpatrick explain, the group has demonstrated greater organizational competency:

When the Islamic State’s Egyptian arm claimed responsibility for blowing up a Russian charter plane over Sinai two weeks ago, some analysts wondered if the group’s so-called 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 the Islamic State also said it carried out, appear to have settled that question and convinced even skeptics 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 Mathieu Guidère, a terrorism specialist at the University of Toulouse. “With this action, a psychological barrier has been broken.” 

So has the West underestimated ISIS? Writing for Politico, J.M. Berger says yes. With its tens of thousands of hardened fighters, tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars in reserve, and savviness using social media and other modern recruiting tolls, Berger argues that ISIS has far surpassed Al Qaeda — including Al Qaeda’s capacity for spectacular attacks:

In response to every threat, the group has responded with more and more intense provocation. When Jordan joined the American-led coalition against ISIL in September 2014, ISIL responded by burning a captured Jordanian pilot alive. And when Russia began airstrikes in Syria earlier this fall (albeit with more bark than bite), ISIL, it appears, took down a Russian plane.

As the group faces growing pressure on its holdings in Iraq and Syria — losing Sinjar to Kurdish forces just hours before the Paris attacks — ISIL will continue to seek ways to change the conversation and preserve its image of strength. And if the coalition succeeds in dislodging ISIL from its primary geographical strongholds, it will free up thousands of fighters to take up new roles as terrorists in much farther-flung places, a prospect that most in the West are probably not adequately prepared to face.

We should also remember that while advanced training and ample resources come into play in a terrorist group’s capabilities, perhaps the most important assets to a terrorist plot or a mass murder are patience and discipline, qualities we can do little to prevent people from developing.

Furthermore, Berger notes that “Spectacular terrorism no longer requires spectacular resources. A few outliers in a world of 7 billion people can wreak tremendous havoc. When those few can find like-minded people across wide geographies who reaffirm and tangibly support their desire to kill, the stakes only rise.”

The Paris attacks may also unfortunately make ISIS stronger, as the Washington Post’s Lydia DePillis learned after speaking with Gina Ligon, a professor of management who has studied ISIS. According to Ligon:

[V]iolence against civilians can be a fundraising tool. The group is “fastidious” about documenting return on investment for its funders, creating promotional videos and collecting news articles about their handiwork to demonstrate impact. […]

One of the unfortunate consequences [of the Paris attacks] is that they are getting a lot of bang for their buck, so we imagine they will use the fallout to find more donors so they can finance future attacks.

But the Islamic State doesn’t need just capital to survive and spread — it also needs labor, in the form of new recruits. Such attacks are a propaganda tool, Ligon says, making the group look stronger in relation to other terrorist groups. “When [the Islamic State] feels like their land is at risk, this is their go-to strategy,” Ligon says.

Then again, Graeme Wood of the Council on Foreign Relations, who wrote an epic Atlantic piece about the meaning of ISIS earlier this year, argues that the group may also have finally gone too far:

The Paris attackers, alas, showed real competence. They planned, and they acquired weapons not easily found in Europe. And if their attack, and the downing of commercial flights as in Sinai, truly represent a new modus operandi for IS, then IS has completely reworked its strategy — or re-estimated its ability to withstand a direct military assault by a NATO alliance. Needless to say, the threat of another nightmare like yesterday could provoke exactly such a response. Unless God intervenes on IS’s side, a full assault on IS in Syria and Iraq will not end with IS still holding its beloved territory and administering a Shariah-compliant state. The Taliban, after all, might still control Kabul today, if they had kept Al Qaeda’s atrocities local. And that is one good reason why the decision-makers in Raqqa might have aggressively lobbied their foreign fighters to immigrate to Syria and join the battle there, rather than stay in Europe and commit their atrocities at home.

Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution posed a solution to this paradox today on Twitter: “ISIS’s state-building & apocalyptic messianism had co-existed in uneasy tension. Perhaps, yesterday, the latter finally eclipsed the former.” That would be one explanation: ISIS has mustered such confidence in its prophetic vision that it is ready to test its strength against the most powerful of earthly enemies. 

But another problem brought to light by Friday’s events, and all of the brutal terror attacks the world has seen over the past few years, is how the frequency and deadliness of terrorism is clearly getting worse. That scourge is on the mind of The New Yorker’s Robin Wright, as well:

More than three decades after the [Islamist terrorist] movement’s genesis in Beirut, the trend generally has proliferated in size, arena, and impact. Small covert cells have grown into big armies, some with thousands of troops. The six-pronged attack in Paris, French President François Hollande told his nation Saturday, “is an act of war that was committed by a terrorist army, a jihadist army.” The warriors, once formed from within neighborhoods, are now assembled from dozens of countries, oceans apart. In the past decade, the targets have less often been the big-ticket sites with historic, official, commercial, or symbolic heft; they are increasingly the vulnerable civilian, and otherwise quite ordinary, people and places — a café, a rock concert, a soccer game, a train station, a newspaper.

The battlefield now spans continents. The agenda is more ambitious, more aggressive, and more arrogant. It seeks to seize others’ space, too. “Let France and all nations following its path know that they will continue to be at the top of the target list for the Islamic State and that the scent of death will not leave their nostrils as long as they partake in the crusader campaign,” the Islamic State said in a statement Saturday. “This is just the beginning.” […]

It’s a tragedy we’re facing,” Patrick Klugman, the deputy mayor of Paris, reflected on CNN on Friday night. “Tomorrow will be another day. But we don’t know if it will start again tomorrow. We don’t know if it’s over.” It almost certainly isn’t.