Code Red: Paris

By Paxton Roberts

It seemed like a normal Friday night in Paris: people were socializing at restaurants and bars, watching a national soccer match, enjoying a concert. Conversation, cheers, and music filled the air, exemplifying the joie de vivre for which France is renowned.

Explosions outside of the soccer stadium during a friendly match between France and Germany didn’t seem out of place; at many European matches, fans set off fireworks. The truth was much more gruesome: one suicide bomber tried to enter the stadium and, when turned away, detonated his explosive belt; another bomber detonated his belt following the first; then another after attacks had occurred elsewhere.

In the 10th and 11th districts of Paris, black cars pulled up to a string of four different restaurants and bars. At three of them, assailants armed with semi-automatic weapons sprayed hundreds of bullets at people enjoying an evening meal. At another restaurant, a suicide bomber entered and detonated his belt, seeking to wreak as much damage as possible.

But the night was not yet over. A team of gunmen entered the Bataclan concert hall, where a band was starting its final set. They fired randomly, attempting to kill as many attendees as possible. Panicked concert-goers attempted to flee or hide if possible: hiding in a cellar, an upstairs room; dangling from windowsills; lying on the floor in others’ blood to convincingly pretend to already be dead. Those who were unable to get away were held hostage for over an hour while the gunmen shot one after another, all while berating the hostages, telling them that this was their fault and the fault of their government. Police were able to breach the building, leading to the assailants being killed or killing themselves. They were not able to prevent the bloodbath that happened there.

The series of coordinated attacks in six places resulted in at least 129 dead, 352 injured with 99 in critical condition, inflicting terror upon the entire world. It revealed our vulnerability, even when enjoying a typical Friday night in the West. The locations chosen seemed to target the young people of Paris, those places where progressive ideas and multicultural coexistence are the norm, not the exception. The goal was clearly to kill or injure as many civilians as possible at once, as seen by the coordination behind the attack, the timing of a Friday night, and the volatile type of explosive that was used.

As the world joins Paris in mourning, it also must also ask what motivated such a heinous massacre? Hours following the attacks, the Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility, boasting that the targeted locations were “accurately chosen” and that this operation was the “first of the storm.”  But they failed to include any proof of their involvement in the attack. While IS has primarily focused on maintaining and expanding their territorial reach in Iraq and Syria in the past, this type of coordinated attack on foreign soil is out of character for the group, resembling instead the expertise of al-Qaeda, the perpetrators of the mass atrocities of September 11. If the Islamic State is indeed to blame for the deadliest terror attack in the France, it signals a shift in strategy that directly targets the West.

Previous foreign attacks claimed by the Islamic State – in Tunisia, Kuwait, France, Egypt, and other places – were thought to be perpetrated by “lone wolf” supporters of IS, not through direct coordination by IS’s central leadership. Becoming more deliberate about planning foreign attacks could allow IS to harken back to its roots in al-Qaeda: externally and not internally focused. This has been proven by France’s discovery of the mastermind behind the Paris attacks: Abdelhamid Abaaoud is known in IS for recruiting, and also was able to go from Syria to Belgium and back, despite being stopped once by police. IS’s Dabiq magazine even published an interview with him, detailing his exploits, in February 2015. Abaaoud’s involvement proves that the attack was orchestrated from IS territory and that the attack was a deviation from preceding ones.

The evolution of IS attacks on foreign soil could be motivated by their deteriorating control on the ground in Iraq and Syria, diminishing probability of establishing their so-called caliphate, and a desire to expand their international influence. Key supply routes and cities have been taken, especially in Iraq, by new Sunni militias and Kurdish forces. President Barack Obama even announced that the current strategy has contained the momentum of IS. This brutal violence showcases their power, extremist ideologies, and can be used to draw in more foreign fighters, when at least 600 French nationals have already joined groups in Iraq and Syria.

Islamophobic blowback is typical following such attacks, evidenced by anti-Muslim rhetoric circulating in the hours and days afterwards. Heightening pre-existing ethnic tensions in a city known for multiculturalism and Western values could potentially spur others to fight for jihad no matter where they are located. The public and governmental reaction of France and the rest of the West will be instrumental in determining whether such an attack is deemed a success for IS in terms of its recruitment. Already, Poland’s European affairs minister designate has refused to accept the EU quota of migrants after the Paris attacks. While German Chancellor Angela Merkel has maintained her policy of tolerance towards migrants and an open-door policy, she is under pressure, even from allies, to change her stance. The United States has increased public focus on Syrian refugees, and Saturday’s Democratic primary debate theme changed to terrorism and security in light of the Paris attacks.

Thus far, the dust has not yet settled from the attacks in Paris. The bloodstains have not yet been cleaned from the streets and restaurants. It is impossible to know all of the policy implications in the fight against IS that will be implemented in the coming weeks. However, France’s Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier was previously scheduled to go to the Mediterranean to help stage French airstrikes against IS. This allows France to have the resources necessary to strike back. French President François Hollande has made some notable statements about the attacks, including that they constituted an “act of war.” His statement points to the possibility of invoking Article 5 of NATO’s foundational Washington Treaty, which could force increased military involvement from NATO members including the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and Turkey.

Until more information is known, we must prepare ourselves for all of the consequences that a terrorist attack can bring. We must find all marks left, both visible and invisible, and work on healing the wounds inflicted by extremists. We must join together against the scourge of terrorism. We must re-instill the joy of living, since that is the way that we will win in this battle of wills.

Paxton photo 2Paxton Roberts is a master’s student at the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. She studies Development and Security with interests in fragile states, development economics, energy security, and violent non-state actors. She can be contacted at pwroberts333@gmail.com, on LinkedIn, or followed on Twitter @pwroberts333.

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