The deadly terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday that killed 129 people and wounded around 350 more signaled a significant change in strategy for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the radical jihadist organization that has claimed responsibility.
“It underscores that this threat is real and that ISIS is not going to be content to consolidate its power in Iraq and Syria,” said Joe Felter, a former Colonel in the U.S. Army Special Forces and senior research scholar Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC).
“They have demonstrated their ability to project power into foreign countries and conduct what I would call an “asymmetric strategic bombing capacity” in the form of these home-grown Western citizens who are willing to strap on suicide vests and blow up targets in support of ISIS directed objectives.
“They’re able to launch attacks with centralized planning and decentralized execution in a way that makes anticipating and interdicting them very difficult.”
French President François Hollande said that the attacks were “planned in Syria, organized in Belgium, perpetrated on our soil with French complicity.”
CISAC senior fellow Martha Crenshaw said the Paris attacks represented “a shift in strategy” for ISIS with the group “taking a more Al Qaeda-like stance and striking Western countries.”
However, she emphasized that the carefully planned nature of the coordinated strikes, where multiple teams carried out simultaneous attacks in three locations across downtown Paris, indicated that this new strategy had been secretly underway for some time.
“These attacks were planned a long time ago,” said Crenshaw, whose Mapping Militants Project includes more information on groups like ISIS.
“You shouldn’t think they’re reacting to very recent circumstances…It’s not like we bombed them one day and the next day they planned these attacks.”
ISIS has long advocated a plan of provoking the West into a larger confrontation that would lead to an apocalyptic victory for Islam, according to Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford and an affiliate at the Center for Democracy Development and the Rule of Law.
“There’s a lot of method to this madness,” Milani said.
“If you read their literature, they have always talked about creating this sort of mayhem.”
ISIS’s propaganda magazine Dabiq, which is available online in Arabic and English, is named after a village in Syria with important symbolism for jihadists.
“They claim that the prophet has predicted that if you can get the West to come and fight the Muslims at Dabiq, then Islam will conquer the world,” Milani said.
Unlike France’s earlier battles against extremists in Algeria, it cannot rely on a proxy state to take the fight to the terrorists, according to Crenshaw.
“When terrorism in France has its origins in Algeria, France could rely on the Algerian state to crack down on these groups,” she said.
“Now you’ve got a situation where the planners are in a country where you don’t have a reliable state to go in and get them for you and wrap up their networks.”
With French warplanes already bombing targets in the Syrian city of Raqqa, Felter warned against the limits of air power in the fight against ISIS.
“There’s a risk that as we ramp up the bombing campaign and increase civilian casualties, this does play into the narrative of these extremists,” he said.
“It’s a very difficult targeting process. ISIS has occupied urban areas full of non-combatants and civilians…It’s the ultimate human shield.”
Felter acknowledged that increasing the number of US ground forces sent to interdict ISIS in Iraq and Syria may ultimately be necessary, but also that this increased presence, if not managed carefully, could backfire.
“At some level, they want to bring Western military forces to occupy these lands, because that will help turn popular opinion against the West and aid in their propaganda and recruitment,” he said.
The fight against ISIS is not limited to the territories it claims in the Middle East. It must be a global effort and include increased international cooperation and information sharing across intelligence, law enforcement and other agencies around the world, Felter said.
ISIS wants to drive a wedge between Europeans and the growing Muslim communities in their countries, so recruiting French citizens to participate in the Paris attacks served a dual purpose, Milani said.
“Using French citizens helps them with logistics, but it also helps them in terms of their strategy in that it makes it difficult for Muslims to live in a non-caliphate context,” he said.
In the wake of the attacks, European nations are working to create legislation that would toughen criminal penalties for citizens who travel abroad to fight with designated terrorist organizations such as ISIS, or strip them of their citizenship, according to CISAC affiliate Anja Dalgaard-Nielsen, a former executive director of the Danish Security and Intelligence Service.
Individuals who are seen as inciting people to travel to Syria and Iraq to join the jihad could also face tougher sanctions, she said.
The emergence of ISIS and its nihilistic theology is a symptom of broader underlying problems in the Middle East, which is grappling with failed and failing states across North Africa and in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to Milani.
“ISIS is the most militant and brutal manifestation of something deeper that’s going wrong,” he said.
“I honestly have never seen the Middle East as perilously close to complete chaos as it is now… [and] I don’t think we’ve seen the worst of it yet.”
Get more background on the Islamic State and its leaders from Martha Crenshaw’s Mapping Militants Project
Is There a Sunni Solution to ISIS? – The Atlantic | By Lisa Blaydes & Martha Crenshaw
Airstrikes Can Only Do So Much to Combat ISIS – New York Times | By Joe Felter
The Super Smart Way to Dismantle ISIS – The National Interest | By Eli Berman, Joe Felter & Jacob Shapiro