The worst terrorist attack in Europe in over a decade was an “act of war” by ISIS, according to French President Francois Hollande. It’s not clear yet what intelligence Hollande was basing that statement on, but ISIS has also claimed responsibility for the attack, calling it the “first of the storm.”
The attack comes two weeks after the bombing of a Russian passenger jet leaving Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, which was claimed by an ISIS affiliate in Sinai—a claim that seems somewhat credible given communications between the group and ISIS operatives in Syria that were intercepted by British and U.S. intelligence. It also comes a day after a pair of explosions killed 43 people near Beirut, also claimed by ISIS. In that case, a captured would-be bomber told investigators he had been recruited by the group.
If all these attacks, off the main battlefield in Syria and Iraq, were indeed the work of ISIS, then this month makes a major escalation in the group’s global threat and reach. 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.
Hollande also said that the attacks were “planned and organized from abroad with help from inside France.” Again, it’s not clear what intelligence he was basing that on, but it’s a crucial distinction. Previous attacks in western countries linked to ISIS, whether the Kosher supermarket hostage killing in Paris in January or the attempted attack on a Muhammad cartoon contest in Garland, Texas in May, were the work of self-motivated extremists inspired by ISIS. The group’s commanders in Syria played little or no role in organizing them. While difficult to prevent and often deadly, this type of attack rarely reaches the scale or organization of what we saw yesterday in Paris—which in its tactics and devastation recalled the highly-organized Mumbai attacks of 2008.
It’s also worth noting that the attacks come after a very bad week for ISIS on the battlefield. The group lost the northern Iraqi city of Sinjar to U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, cutting a supply route between the group’s capital in Raqqa, Syria, and its Iraqi stronghold in Mosul. In western Syria, ISIS’s year long siege on a key airbase was broken by Russian-backed Syrian troops. A drone strike also appears to have killed one of its best-known militants, the British executioner Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John.”
The developments were enough that President Obama felt comfortable making a statement yesterday before the Paris attacks, which he is now under fire for, that ISIS had been “contained.” Given what we’ve seen from other militant groups, if ISIS begins to face sustained setbacks on the battlefield and lose significant amounts of territory, the risk of terrorist attacks off the battlefield may actually increase not diminish. ISIS’s rapid rise has flummoxed the many governments arrayed against it for two years now, but up until this point its been viewed primarily as a threat to the stability of its own region. Now, it’s something else entirely.