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Islamic State attacks Paris

November 14, 2015

Summary: The terror attacks in Paris were almost certainly conducted by Islamic State and killed or wounded nearly 500 civilians. It seems possible that some of the attackers came to Europe as recent refugees through Greece. A backlash against Muslims, refugees and asylum seekers looks inevitable. The incident may not yet be over: suspects on the run and “sleeper” attackers may contribute to further violent acts in the days to come. The attack could have been worse: a terrorist group with light mortars or RPGs, dug-in and prepared to fight from defensive positions, could bring a modern city to a standstill for days, not hours.

No easy solution: troops on the streets can be counter-productive and unsustainable

Thus far it appears that the well-coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris last night have killed nearly 130 and wounded around 350 innocent civilians. The assault has been claimed by Islamic State and there seem to be no reasons to dispute this claim. These were well-timed assaults by a handful of seemingly highly trained and motivated individuals armed only with small arms and suicide vests.

French President, Francois Hollande, has declared the attacks an “act of war” by Islamic State although prosecuting such an asymmetric conflict as a “war” is, from the historic experience of many European nations, generally complex, painful, unrewarding and long-drawn out. Terrorist groups operating in urban areas employing atrocity and fear as their main weapons of choice are extremely difficult to eradicate unless some form of political shift takes place. Islamic State does not appear to function as a “traditional” terrorist group in this respect.

Options for Mr Hollande and Europe as a whole are uninviting: increasing the bombing of distant IS desert bases and flooding the streets of Paris (or London, Brussels, Stockholm, Madrid…) with police, gendarmeries or even soldiers on high alert are both counter-productive and unsustainable.  It should therefore come as no surprise that these weapons and tactics are highly favoured by Islamic State (IS), Al Qaeda (AQ) and the Taliban. The action resembled nothing less than the “complex” attacks frequently conducted by the Taliban in Afghanistan. They can bring cities to a standstill. But it could get a lot worse. The difference between Taliban complex attacks and the one that hit Paris last night is the preference on several occasions for the Taliban to attempt to “dig in” to a building and force the security forces to fight to get them out. In this approach they create or scout out suitable buildings as defensible positions. They then either fortifying them in advance or bringing additional supplies of food, water and ammunition with them into the building once the fighting starts. The aim is to continue the fight for as long as possible – every hour of resistance creates more terror, more TV and social media coverage and more propaganda.

The attack may not yet be over: intelligence leads are taking security forces to Belgium attempting to trace suspects. IS seem to claim they despatched eight suicide vests and only seven have thus far been accounted for. It is certainly not impossible that other attacks may emerge, either as a result of the hunt for perpetrators and facilitators on the run or even from new attackers waiting to build on the chaos and confusion in a “double blow”.

I sat in the ISAF headquarters for 24 hours over two days in September in 2011 under Taliban attack. A 12-storey building site with a good view and line of site to ISAF and the US Embassy had been reconnoitred and prepared in advance as a fighting position. There were only five or six fighters with small arms. But their trump card was an 82mm ex-Soviet recoilless rifle, which operates more or less like a light artillery piece in that you point it directly at the target. It was not particularly accurate in untrained hands. But a city in which there is the continual crack and crump of gunfire over a period of hours – or even days – is a strong propaganda victory for asymmetric attackers. It was the case in Kabul, which has a certain weary expectancy of these things. But the impact of such an event in a modern Western European city, if small terrorist groups have the capability to project shells over distance – RPGs, recoilless rifles (as the Taliban used in the 13th September attack) or light mortars – would be a devastating escalation of terror. If a financial district or transport and communications centres (think railway stations or airports) could be brought under even just sporadic shellfire over hours or days, large parts of the city would close and the authorities would be rushed in to assaulting buildings that the terrorists groups had already prepared for defence – casualties could be very high. This approach is certainly something that should be worried over by Western security and intelligence groups – if IS had had a couple of small mortars, an RPG and a slightly different plan, the fight in Paris could still have be ongoing tonight.

The Taliban were able to defend this building for hours - storming it was costly and difficult

The Taliban were able to defend this building for hours – storming it was costly and difficult

Looking wider, inevitably we should expect and fear a backlash against Muslim communities and refugee/asylum groups. Reports from Paris point to at least two of the attackers having had passports that had been processed by the Greek authorities as refugees or migrants in the last few months. It is likely that much intelligence work will be trained on this angle in the coming months.

I note now that the Swedish police are now boarding trains to check IDs in an attempt to identify refugees and migrants. This was before the news from Paris. But a largely unregulated flow of migrants has been on my mind for some time as a possible route for terrorist groups to infiltrate (or re-infiltrate, in the case of some) into Europe. It is likely that border controls will be further tightened on and within the perimeters of Europe. It is also likely that this initiative is largely too late. Furthermore, “self-radicalisation” of young men in Muslim communities will likely carry on, regardless.

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