Eight attackers in three coordinated teams attacked six locations in Paris over the weekend including the Stade de France sports stadium and the Bataclan art center with AK-47s, grenades and suicide vests. The total casualties inflicted by the group – claimed by the Islamic State – as of November 16 is 129 dead and 352 wounded.
The attacks reveal the extent to which the situation in Syria, the immigration crisis in Europe and international terrorism are interconnected. These were homegrown violent extremists, directed by a well-funded international organisation that controls vast resources and territory in the Middle East, hitting purely civilian, soft targets in a sophisticated manner.
While not a game-changer, and not entirely unsurprising given the frequency of the Islamic State’s threats against France throughout 2015, the attacks indicate how effective the group’s recruitment campaign has become and the ease at which it can call on this broad network of sympathisers and sleeper cells to conduct attacks in Western countries.
The Paris attacks however betray a weakness in the Islamic State structure and narrative. While the group clearly possesses the capability to strike Western countries, the military situation on the ground against the group in Iraq and Syria (where it is based) is no longer favourable to the group which is forcing it to lash out at foreign targets instead.
In Iraq, government forces backed by US airpower are encroaching on the city of Ramadi. The Islamic State has controlled the city for months, and will be deeply dug-in with fortifications and improvised explosive devices covering the approaching roads, slowing down government advances. Baghdad is nevertheless moving steadily from house to house in heavy rains. A win for the government in Ramadi will severely undermine the militant group’s narrative of being unstoppable.
Meanwhile in Iraq’s Sinjar province Kurdish forces work to sever a crucial supply line along a road connecting Iraqi city Mosul with the Islamic State’s de-facto capital Raqqa, located in Syria. Controlling Sinjar will hamstring the group’s overall combat effectiveness.
In Syria, Russia continues its airstrikes targeting mainly anti-Assad rebel forces. The regime, supported by Russian airpower, retook the Kweiris airbase where loyalist forces had been under siege for three years. East of the Euphrates River, Kurds and US forces appear ready for an imminent ground campaign against Raqqa. And west of the river, Turkish and US forces prepare for a similar campaign.