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Case, Response, and Results Analysis: Paris Attacks – November 13, 2015

Updated: Sep 11, 2021

Introduction: A Pivotal Act of Terrorism


On November 13, 2015, nine Islamist extremists associated with Islamic State (IS) launched a three-hour attack against the city of Paris and its inhabitants. The actors targeted bars, restaurants, a sports venue, and a theatre with firearms and explosives in order “to seek revenge, polarize Europe, and garner support within the terrorist organization.” This attack was coordinated and designed to inflict a substantial number of civilian casualties in an effort to influence the French government’s position and operations against Islamic lands and peoples in general and Iraq and Syria specifically.


The effects of this attack rippled across the world, from the immediate responses of France and Belgium to the signalling for strategic shifts in counterterrorism and military policies, to the IS propaganda machine. This attack galvanized Western involvement into the then-largely Middle Eastern fight against Islamic State. While al-Qa’ida had long plagued the West with its Islamist terrorism, the brutal November, 2015, attack in Paris demonstrated the lengths to which IS was willing to go to establish its caliphate and wage total war against Western values and governments. The effects of this attack on the governments of France and Belgium in particular, and the West in general, will be felt long after the demise of IS as a transnational organization. At the same time, the success of this operation will be studied by Islamists for years to come.


How IS conducted this attack and how each involved party responded to this attack is crucial in understanding values and attitudes towards such barbarity at the time and can serve as a case study for governments in future conflict. This case study will utilise the framework published by the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) to examine the perpetrators, weapons, operation, government and IS responses, and provide an assessment of the victors in this attack. Using this model, we can provide lessons learned to inform government policymaking with regard to specific groups and general ideologies.


Islamic State: Composition and Disposition in 2015


“Although IS has not announced its official structure, experts in following the development of this organization and other jihadist groups” have been able to establish the defined structure of IS over time. In the months leading up to the attack in 2015, IS had a large state-style organization which included: a head of state (Caliph) (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), “vice president” (Abu Abdullah al-Baghdadi), six advisory councils (converted from ministries), fifteen governates headed by governors, and six organized armies in Iraq and Syria. The goal of the organization was (and still is) to establish an Islamic Caliphate which is representative and the authority for all Muslims across the world and which serves as the ruling organization of the world.


Islamic State’s “doctrine…requires believers to reside in the caliphate if it is at all possible for them to do so.” However, if one could not do so, IS advocated for them to conduct attacks where they’re found, especially those belonging to the member nations of the crusader coalition,” “striking the kuffar where it would hurt them most – in their own lands and on the very streets that they presumptively walk in safety.” While IS’s goal was to establish a Caliphate in the Middle East, it viewed any Western influence as the enemy and, therefore, advocated, supported, directed, and claimed operations abroad, largely through its media wing, and advertised those operations in its publications (such as Dabiq Magazine, which showcased the 2015 Paris attacks under its military operations section just five days later).


Islamic State: Tactics and Targets in 2015


As previously discussed, IS’s directive to those who fight outside of its territory in the Middle East on IS’s behalf is to “strik[e] the kuffar where it would hurt them most” (i.e. at home and against any non-IS target). The organization later proclaimed “Islam is the religion of the sword not pacifism” and that any “apologetic ‘du’at’” who proclaims “Islam is the religion of peace” is “flirting with the West.” As a result of these proclamations, the targets of IS-sponsored, -directed, and -claimed attacks are widespread and indiscriminate; any target will suffice so long as it is done in the name of IS.


The same statement is true of tactics. Islamic State lauded the Sydney attack’s simplicity in the actor’s use of a firearm. It later praised the attack in Lyon in which the actor “behead[ed] a kafir belonging to France” at a factory; in the same publication, IS also touted an explosion targeting a temple in Kuwait and a small-arms attack against a hotel in Sousse, Tunisia. Islamic State’s message, then, for its agents outside of the Middle East was clear: attack the West however and wherever one could. The target and method of attack were immaterial as long as the attack was violent, target non-IS targets, and was done in the name of Islam.


Paris: Actor Composition


The attack in Paris was perpetrated by ten men: five French, three Belgian, and two Iraqi or Syrian. At least seven of the perpetrators fought or attempted to fight with IS in Iraq and Syria, and six allegedly had or had since been involved in other terrorist attacks supporting IS in Europe. By the composition of the attack group, it is clear that this group was a devout follower of IS: most answered or attempted to answer the call to join IS in the Middle East while those that did not had engaged in terrorism where they could before the 2015 Paris attack.


The organization of the attack represents that of IS at the time: there were three clear teams each with their own objectives and attack methods (these will be discussed in detail later). The hierarchical structure of IS in the Middle East is one which dispersed the command and control nodes away from a central location but also ensured each army, governorate, or council fulfilled its function within the organization. Such was the case in this attack.


What is unclear is why there were two individuals, Mohamed Abrini and Salah Abdeslam, who were not killed in the attacks. Both of these individuals were seen inside of a vehicle after the attacks occurred; some propose that these men were to attack another, unknown location while their actions could also indicate that they were simply the drivers (possibly “getaway” drivers for the small-arms attack). In either case, this would still be in keeping with the organizational structure previously discussed.


It is unlikely that such an attack would be of the lone wolf variety; it is more unlikely that IS leaders would have entrusted this attack to any willing homegrown European agent. As such, this attack is suspected to have been led by Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who had been involved in terrorist activity in Europe for at least a few years (including four foiled attacks in 2015, an attack on a Jewish Museum in 2014, and “membership” in IS since 2013). Given his history of terrorist activity in support of IS since 2013, Abaaoud fits the profile of an IS attack leader: proven in “at-home” activities, loyal to the organization, and a true believer in IS’s religious extremism and opposition to Islamic pacifism.


Paris: Targets


The IS agents in this attack targeted three venues: the Stade de France, which was hosting the France – Germany football match (and, likely incidentally, but not insignificant in terms of propaganda, where the President of France was located); five restaurants; and Bataclan concert hall (which was hosting a U.S. band). Much like the targets of the 9/11 attack by al-Qa’ida fourteen years earlier, these targets were symbolic in their own right. The attack on the restaurants demonstrated that an evening out for a meal is not safe; the attack on the football match demonstrated that national pastimes and international events can be deadly even if one participates solely in activities outside of the stadium; and the attack on the concert hall demonstrated how easily a public venue can become an inescapable tomb.


These targets had the added benefit of demonstrating IS’s advocation for attacking any target one could; they are, indeed, as random as the targets praised in Dabiq Magazine only a few months earlier. Islamic State, in this attack, declared to the world that no facet of Parisian (read: European or Western) Friday evening life is safe from its Jihad. In order to combat this in the future, the French government increased security to a before untold level: the French Army patrols the streets in formation, armed Gendarmerie stand guard on street corners and along roadways, and random antiterrorism measures are implemented in the middle of Parisian traffic. Clearly, the psychological effect was achieved.


Paris: Tactics


The IS agents in this attack used suicide belts and vests, assault rifles, vehicles, and grenades to conduct this attack. The suicide belts and vests were intended to be detonated outside of the football match. These agents inflicted one casualty in the course of their attack but had the benefit of initiating and finalising the terror attack – a true crescendo moment for the attack. Unlike the later shooting in San Bernardino, the gunmen at the restaurants used vehicles which served both as their attack platform (in the form of “drive-by” shootings) and as a method of increasing their lethality and targets. Finally, and most heinously, the attack on the concert hall was designed to be a blood bath: the gunmen opened fire on the attendees, threw hand grenades into the crowd, and ultimately detonated their suicide vests in the sealed building when police attempted to initiate a hostage rescue.


The tactics involved were not revolutionary. They were, however, psychologically impactful, both for later attacks and for Western governments. A drive-by shooting would not initially be thought of as a terrorist attack; however, now one can no longer be sure. The security services were put in a situation to now must consider terrorism as a motive for what was once typically seen as a simple criminal act. The suicide bombings outside of the stadium had negligible impact in terms of casualties; however, the fact that the security services missed three suicide bombers at an event the President was attending is one cannot be overlooked. The massacre at the concert hall killed ninety people and demonstrated that hostage taking was no longer a means to an end (as it has been for decades, even for Islamist terrorists), but the end in and of itself.


All of these tactics are in line with those propagated by IS in its widely distributed publications up to this attack. They varied widely (in terms of a single attack), were simplistic in nature, and were designed to bring a large amount of attention to an attack perpetrated against everyday life by IS.


Response: Immediate Aftermath


Immediately following the Paris attacks, and while much information was still being developed, U.S. European Command (USEUCOM) halted all non-essential movement into Paris and the surrounding areas for all Department of Defence personnel, and required high-level approval for non-official travel throughout France. The French government declared a state of emergency on November 14, 2015, which, in Paris, resulted in a curfew, banning categories of public gatherings, “administrative searches of private property in the presence of the judicial police, at any time of day or night,” and placing “any person whose activities are deemed to be a threat to security” under house arrest. The French Armée de Terre deployed 3000 Soldiers to the Ile-de France region (where Paris is located) to bring the total number of Soldiers deployed in response to jihadist terrorism that year to 10,000.


Response: French Government


As previously mentioned, France enacted a state of emergency after the Paris attack which, among other responses, resulted in 10,000 French soldiers patrolling the Ils-de-France region, eleven religious institutions closed “for incitement to commit terrorist acts,” and forty-one people under house arrest due to “links to organisations spreading extremism and hatred.” This state of emergency, intended to last a week, was renewed repeatedly through November 1, 2017, a full two years after the attack. The trade-off, however, was not a return to the pre-attack norms; instead, a sweeping counterterrorism law replaced emergency powers. This law gave “enforcement agencies greater authority to conduct searches, to close religious facilities, and to restrict the movements of people suspected of extremist ties.” While a concern from the civil liberties perspective, the new law was formed based on input from civil liberties organizations which lends the new measures which trade freedom for security legitimacy.


In addition to the state of emergency and new counterterrorism law, the Conseil Français de Culte Musulman “issue[d] certificates to imams who prove their non-radical credentials” who “acknowledge[d] French secular values.” This response is more troubling than the trade of freedom for security as it placed the French government squarely in the business of deciding which versions of Islam were acceptable and which were not. While Geraghty refers to this as creating a “French Islam,” in reality such actions “compromis[e] the integrity of the religious establishment, regardless of the legitimacy of its position” and “discredit the positions they advocate and likely favor those who promote a more radical interpretation of religious tenets.”


Militarily, France ramped up its counter-IS participation in the years following this attack. In the weeks following the attack, French military recruitment increased from five hundred applications a day to an average of fifteen hundred. It appears as though the French public had its equivalent of the U.S. 9/11 in terms of patriotism and desire to fight those which attacked their homeland. In the Middle East, France transitioned its focus from “the need to prevent further attacks in France that might be orchestrated from Syria” (as was likely the case during the 2015 Paris attack) to “the destruction of the Islamic State group.” As a result, France provided approximately 1000 French soldiers to support Operation Chammal (the French component of the fight against IS in the Middle East), Rafale and Mirage aircraft for air strikes against IS, and several naval ships to support military efforts.


Response: Belgian Government


Three of the attackers were from Belgium and two were captured there in the weeks after the attacks. The Belgian Prime Minister sought “to double the budget for state security in fighting terrorism,” despite Belgium having suffered from zero Islamist or jihadist terror attacks in 2015. He also sought, among other measures, “the authority to shut down mosques where hate speech is preached,” “increase recruitment for security forces,” and “extend the use of investigative methods for terrorism cases…to other crimes.”

Despite the sweeping security reforms and the stated need to stem the flow and influence of Islamist terrorism through Europe, Belgium did not contribute overwhelmingly to the Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh/ISIS. Militarily, Belgium only provided six F-16s between July 2016 and December 2017 and a small number of advice and assistance teams to combat IS in the Middle East (although the latter is not widely distributed information). “Convinced that a solely military response to the crisis in Iraq and Syria will not stabilize the region over the long term…Belgian authorities have decided for a resolutely holistic approach to the matter, where prevention, repression, and duty off care go hand in hand.” As a part and result of this position, Belgium focuses its response to this and subsequent attacks by preventing radicalization, creating “an inclusive society,” and investigating and prosecuting terrorist acts (some two hundred in the two year period of 2015-2017).


Response: Islamic State


Islamic State capitalized on this attack in the days, weeks, and months which followed the attack. A week after the attack, IS released a video titled “Paris s'est effondré” (“Paris has collapsed”) in which the group proclaimed to the West (translated):


“You will pay the price when you fear traveling to any other country, whatever. you will pay the price when you walk your streets, and look right and left, fearing Muslims. You will not feel safe even in your rooms. You will have to pay the price when this crusade breaks, and then we will fight you in your homes.”


Additionally, in its January 2016 issue of Dabiq Magazine, IS published Michael Morell’s (former Acting Director of the Central Intelligence Agency) article from TIME magazine titled “What Comes Next, and How Do We Handle It? – ISIS Will Strike America,” which was published after the 2015 Paris attack. Islamic State did not need to create its own messaging and propaganda to strike fear into the West and recruit for its cause– it could use U.S. officials and newspapers to its advantage. At the end of IS’s publication of Morrell’s article, it adds:


“Yes, the crusader strategy is not working because the Islamic State is here to stay. It is a state that inflicts just terror against its infidel, pagan, and apostate enemies…let the crusaders get used to the sound of explosion and the image of carnage in their very own homelands.”


Islamic State: The Ideological Victor


“French authorities risk responding precisely as the Islamic State hopes: by framing its fight against the Islamic State as one of values and seeking to impose governmental control of Islam in France”. This is, in fact, what occurred in domestic France. The French emergency powers and subsequent counterterrorism law targeting Islamic communities and institutions. In the case of the Conseil, the French response succeeded in turning Islamic communities against other Islamic communities. Islamic State describes democracy as a “pagan religion” and rejects its place in any form of Islam. By acknowledging French secular values, as previously discussed, the Conseil and all imams and mosques associated with it declared itself diametrically opposed to any extreme or fundamentalist version of Islam (and its followers). Thus, these communities, in the eyes of Islamic State, unified themselves with the French government and, consequently, declared themselves an enemy of Islamic State and the Muslim world.


Islamic State’s declaration that the West will “fear Muslims” wherever they go also rung true. This is clearly demonstrated in France’s emergency powers and counterterrorism law. Further, to use a Jack McCoy quote from an unknown episode of Law & Order: “If we destroy human rights and rule of law in the response to terrorism, they have won.” Islamic State seeks division in the West; it seeks the West to erode its own values as it seeks to destroy the terrorist threat. Islamic State remains committed to its values and cause to this day regardless of the actions taken against it. It holds itself up as an immovable pillar of morality which should attract the sympathy and support of Muslims across the world. The West must counter this narrative by remaining resolute in its own values as it fights IS both at home and abroad. By passing legislation which targets, singles out, or otherwise adversely affects even one population group, Western nations compromise their values. Islamic State, then, can easily claim, albeit in many more, more direct words, “The West has values, except when it comes to Muslims. Muslims aren’t afforded these values. But the Islamic State values Muslims and will protect you against these injustices.”


While it is true that IS-inspired attacks in France have declined sharply during the period of emergency powers and new counterterrorism laws (fifteen attacks in 2015 compared with nineteen attacks from 2016 through 2018), IS won in terms of organizational values in the aftermath of this attack. As previously discussed, civil rights groups advocated against the counterterrorism law in France as it was an afront to civil liberties. Further, France excludes persons returning from supporting IS in the Middle East from participating in de-radicalization programs. Such exclusion is not in line with democratic values and, thus, only goes to reinforce IS’s efforts to divide the Muslim and Western worlds.


Conclusion: Gaps, Mistakes, and Moving Forward


The 2015 Paris Attack reads like a story through the INSS’s framework for terrorism studies:

  • Leadership: the leader of this group was no random selection; he was a devoted, proven member of the organization;

  • Group Composition: the other agents were equally devoted to the cause, with each of them exhibiting desires and history of fighting for the Islamic State in Europe and abroad;

  • Organization: the organization mimicked that of IS in the Middle East, with each attack team being coordinated enough to conduct simultaneous attacks but dispersed enough to ensure no team’s defeat would bring down the others

  • Messaging: all of the actors strictly adhered to the messaging and intent IS pushes through its media platforms; they all made or attempted to make the journey to fight along IS and returned to continue that fight deep in the heart of the West

  • Tactics: the tactics employed were as varied as those praised in each issue of IS’s Dabiq Magazine with equally diverse target selection; this had the benefit of bringing with it psychological effects which would long affect Paris, Europe, and the West as a whole.


One question that remains of this attack is this: were there any other linkages? Did IS work with another group or nation-state to complete this mission? Some argue that al-Qa’ida must have been involved at some point; however, that point is unproven and, seemingly, unfounded. It is unlikely that, during this period of IS’s lifecycle, it would have been state-sponsored. There appears to have been a terrorist link in Greece with Abaaoud’s previous activities, but even he left those activities to fight for Islamic State in 2013. This lack of linkage is telling; it tells us the group, at this time, was powerful enough to hold its territory in the Middle East against the Iraqi and Syrian armies and the international coalition while simultaneously providing for mass-casualty attacks abroad. Hezbollah and Hamas are both state-sponsored, but they are involved in a political struggle within recognized countries. Islamic State is trying to carve a nation out for itself. This should be the lesson for practitioners, governments, and academics: when a group reaches the governing level of capability over its own territory, the possibilities for international attacks and influence become almost limitless.


In terms of Western response, this attack was a defining moment in the fight against IS. France’s significant increase in counter-IS efforts can only be equated with that of the U.S. response to 9/11. There are, in fact, many similarities, from a significant increase in military operations abroad to the transition from deterring attacks to destroying a group to the sweeping counterterrorism reforms which trade civil liberties for public security. The same can be said of Belgium, an unwilling and unwitting participant in these attacks and their aftermath. A Belgian military officer once told me that “Belgium is a country that was created so the countries of France, Germany, and Great Britain could have a safe place to work out their differences.” While a joke, it is clearly no longer the case. Belgium, forced into counterterrorism fight against IS both at home and abroad, is now a crucial partner in investigating and stopping terrorist attacks in Europe.


For better or worse, the response to the 2015 Paris attack by France and Belgium had a documentable impact on IS’s operations and recruitment in Europe. In the years since this attack, there have only been three terrorist incidents combined in these countries which involved more than one assailant. For all practical purposes, IS’s days of launching coordinated, multi-cell attacks in these nations ended with the arrest of Salah Abdesalam and Mohamed Abrini, the Paris attackers who were not killed during the attack.

However, the responses to this attack and the end to this fight came at a cost to the West. Sweeping counterterrorism reform laws placed France and Belgium in the same league as the U.S. with the USA PATRIOT Act. The compromise of values was an unintended, but completely avoidable, consequence of the fight against IS. In terms of ideological positions, IS gave up nothing in this attack; France and Belgium cannot say the same. Islamic State succeeded in striking fear into the West in their everyday lives at the cost of ten men. France and Belgium succeeded in deterring and defeating IS and IS-inspired attacks, but at a cost which neither nation may be willing to quantify or admit.


“If the history of warfare has one lesson to offer, it is that there are no decisive weapons, tactics, or operational concepts.” While it is not possible to predict the future, attacks of this nature can and do bolster society’s ability to understand and respond to them. Moving forward, those responsible for recommending policy should carefully study attacks and the impacts of governments’ response in order to better recommend policies and measures to deter, defeat, and defend against such actions and groups. Simply responding in kind to these attacks does not serve the Western long-term interest and erodes the values which are the bedrock of democratic nations. It is possible to win the fight against IS and other terrorist groups without compromising values or ceding civil liberties. While that was not the case in this attack, it can be in the future.


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