More than 120 people are reportedly dead after multiple waves of terror attacks in central Paris. As the aftermath now evolves, France and Europe will likely enter a new phase of potentially disastrous political and social unrest.
In what appears to be a coordinated attack against at least three locations in the French capital, civilians were targeted by individuals carrying explosives and firearms. The Bataclan concert hall was the site of the night’s deadliest killings in which gunmen took hundreds of hostages before being overpowered by French special police units.
Early reports suggest a handful of individuals were responsible for what are being called terrorist attacks. Police, army and military special forces have mobilised and will be attempting to secure critical areas of the central city. Firefights between authorities and suspected gunmen are ongoing.
French authorities have also declared a state-of-emergency and closed the country’s borders. French President Francois Hollande, who was attending an international sporting match close to one of the attack sites, has vowed to fight the attackers “without mercy.” The government is implementing a Plan Red, the country’s highest level of emergency.
The attack profile emerged in waves, beginning with multiple suspected suicide bombings or explosions near crowded public spaces. Following the explosions, a series of drive-by shootings began targeting restaurants filled with people enjoying the bustling Friday evening.
The Bataclan concert hall was then invaded by a third wave of gunmen, who reportedly also carried grenades. It is unclear how many people were killed at the hall, but French police have stated an unidentified number of gunmen were engaged in intense exchanges of gunfire with authorities.
Elsewhere in France, a refugee camp in Calais known as “the jungle” is reportedly on fire. It is unclear why the fires are burning or whether they are in relation to the killings in Paris.
French police look for next steps
As always in quick-moving events, the first reports are generally incorrect. Details are still emerging, and will continue to arrive over the hours and months, from the city so a complete picture of what exactly happened is presently unknown. Nevertheless, the French authorities and its international intelligence partners and allies will be attempting to answer a number of immediate questions.
It is as yet unclear who the attackers were, what their motivations are, whether this attack event is finished or more are planned, why the targets were chosen, how many attackers are still on the loose and whether Paris is the only target. It is likely that many, if not all, of the attackers were known to French police before the strikes, so organising what the authorities already know will be one of the first steps.
Unless a known terror or militant group claims responsibility, attribution of the attack will also be difficult, but still important. Although Twitter accounts belonging to the Islamic State militant group are celebrating the attacks, the group has not yet claimed responsibility.
This is unsurprising, as the militant groups has not yet been unable to conduct a transnational terror attack outside the battlefields of Iraq and Syria. The Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in January was claimed by members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The French authorities will attempt to secure the central city of Paris, but given the amorphous nature of modern terrorism, they will need to be on every corner and in every building to prevent further attacks.
Since this is a scenario clearly beyond any police or government’s capability, the police will focus on the initial attack sites and reports of other suspicious persons. Aside from displaying returned state control and security for panicked Parisian citizens, authorities will need to prioritise their limited security resources and neutralise any confounding factors such as municipal transport systems. Once the city of Paris is secured, the police will begin to put the pieces together of what they know and what they do not know.
The threat of grassroots terror
Despite the high death toll, the type and style of attack is not terribly difficult to conceive of or conduct for a small, determined terror group.
From Mumbai in 2008 to Moscow in 2002 and the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris this year, the decision to use simple small-arms coupled with small group tactics and explosives can have devastating effects. Modern firearms do not require much training to be effective tools for killing in crowded public areas - known as soft targets in security jargon. Mixed with basic military small group tactics, a person with a firearm can essentially kill unarmed people at will until they either run out of bullets and/or targets, or is stopped by authorities.
Over the past few years, a spate of isolated terror attacks around the globe have been largely conducted by “grassroots” actors - people with terrorist goals who do not require central coordination from an umbrella terror organisation. In order to assess the possibility of follow-on attacks, it will be crucial for the French authorities to establish whether the gunmen are indeed members of a grassroots cell, known or otherwise, or whether the attacks were coordinated by a larger terror organisation such as al Qaeda or the Islamic State.
Generally speaking, given the diverse and evolving history of terror attackers, smaller grassroots-style attacks do lack the necessary group infrastructure, funding, planning and logistics to conduct large-scale terror attacks or sustain the attacks over a long period. Larger groups with higher levels of planning can create much greater damage, for instance the September 11 attacks in New York, but those groups are more bulky and easier to spot with modern intelligence and police resources and therefore simpler to foil.
So while they do not have the advantages of scale and top-down instruction often associated with more structured groups, the flipside means these grassroots actors are also more difficult to monitor or to discover by authorities. Yet, what grassroots actors lack in size they make up for in surprise and agility. As seen in Paris today, their disparate and hidden nature means the cells can still cause significant damage.
Although the attacks feature an impressive level of coordination, likely requiring sustained pre-operational surveillance of the targets and days or weeks of a high level of operational security as the attackers prepared, they are not entirely unexpected.
In many ways, the game of security is similar to the football rule of penalty kicks, where in this analogy kicking the ball into the net is a successful terror attack. Every shot must be saved by the goalkeeper, yet the kicker can strike from and at anywhere inside the net - at any time. In other words, a terrorist can miss hundreds of times, but inevitably the ball is going in the back of the net.
The French government has an almost diametrical view in how it balances security and privacy for its citizens compared to the US or New Zealand. The French internet is highly monitored, as is its growing immigrant population. The country has been targeted for decades by terror attacks, which is the reason French authorities both understand the reality that attacks eventually will occur and will now deal with this event in a very heavy handed and French way.
As this site has pointed out recently, the demography of immigrants arriving in Europe from North Africa, the Middle East and further abroad is heavily weighted towards male between 18 and 30 years old. Other commentators have pointed out this disparity and questioned whether the immigrants should truly be called refugees if such a small percentage include women, children and the elderly. The enormous numbers of young males arriving in Europe over the past few months is probably better described as an invading army.
In other words, what occurred in Paris today was entirely predictable given the geopolitics of the wider region these immigrants generally hark from. Much of the Middle East and North Africa is struggling to contain significant militancy and terrorism, and members of these groups have for years announced to the world their desire to “take the fighting” to Europe and other Western countries.
European border laws have also made it incredibly easy for hundreds of thousands of refugees to enter the bloc and essentially disappear into Germany, France and other member states. European intelligence services will be already aware of the potential for terrorists to be among the arriving refugees, but as pointed out before, are likely overwhelmed by the sheer number. A few penalty kicks will have gotten through.
The Islam connection
French combat aircraft will begin flying bombing missions against Islamic State positions from the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle next week. This is the second time the carrier group has operated in a combat role in the Levant, but other French forces have been bombing the Islamic State since September alongside the US-led multinational force in Iraq and Syria, of which New Zealand troops are supporting.
It is unlikely that the presence of a French aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf would have caused the Paris attacks, but France’s involvement against the militant Islamic group will be a factor in spurring the attackers on if they are indeed Muslim. France will likely ramp up its engagement in Iraq and Syria should the Paris attacks be connected to the Islamic State group.
What must be made perfectly clear at this point is that the identities and motivations of the attackers is unknown. However, the history of terrorism in the last decade is essentially a single story of Islamic persons wishing to and conducting such attacks. It will therefore be no surprise to many people when and if the perpetrators claim to be Muslim.
That the Islamic State is supporting the attacks, and early reports indicate the captured attackers claim to be “from the Islamic State”, suggests a connection to the Islamic community will be made. This fact, along with the wider problem of unsuitable European immigration laws, which are already under intense pressure throughout the bloc, will have serious ramifications for the integrity of a struggling political union.
Reprisal attacks against Muslims will most likely increase over the next few days and weeks, and will not be isolated only to France. Other European countries and its many regions are similarly frustrated with the Islamic community and will put pressure on their governments to enact more control over Muslims and other immigrants.
That the French president decided immediately to seal off the country’s borders following the attacks indicates the government was planning to do so anyway. France is unlikely now to open its land borders for days, or potentially weeks or months.
On the other hand, the huge numbers of young Muslims, both recently arrived as refugees and permanent citizens, are likely to respond violently to any reprisal attacks. And many who feel ideological and religious affinity with extremist Islamic groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State may choose to replicate the Paris attacks in coming weeks and months.
Regardless of whether such actions occur, the politics in France are now sure to change drastically. France is not the only country in Europe vulnerable to such attacks, and considering the style on display and ease of accessing lethal weapons, all of Europe will now be on high alert.
In the charged atmosphere of present-day Europe, and France in particular, the French government will now face considerable pressure to act in more serious ways to bolster security than it has since the Charlie Hebdo attacks and could even collapse if it is seen to be enacting insufficient measures in the wake the tragedy.