First published in the Jerusalem Report
THE KIND of terrorist attacks that struck Paris early in the new year had long been dreaded by the authorities in France, Europe and most of the Western world. The Sydney café siege in December presaged the far deadlier onslaughts in the Charlie Hebdo magazine building, the streets of Paris and the Jewish kosher supermarket.
Intelligence leaked by Western services to the media, dozens of official seminars and hundreds of expert articles predicted a wave of terrorism as a result of thousands of radicalized foreign fighters returning from the Syrian and Iraqi battle fronts. The open threats by ISIS and other jihadist groups as well as the gruesome videos of decapitated hostages on the Internet did not leave much to the imagination.
And yet the deadly events in Paris took both politicians and public opinion by surprise. It appeared that the French authorities were slow to take the necessary measures to stop the flow of jihadists to Syria and Iraq, and to neutralize the budding terrorist networks at home. It is still too early to say who was behind the Paris operation, a foreign sponsor or a local cell.The perpetrators were not returnee fighters from the Middle East, like the terrorist responsible for the killing of four people in the Brussels Jewish Museum attack in May 2014; rather they were members of the old “Buttes-Chaumont group,” a loose network of North African petty criminal youths radicalized in prison and a small neighborhood mosque in Paris.
However, the “Buttes-Chaumont group” was linked to the 2003-2006 networks that sent fighters to join al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) in its struggle against the American and coalition forces. As AQI transformed itself into ISIS, it would be reasonable to assume that the French Algerian Kouachi brothers acted in its name.
Moreover, Amedy Coulibaly, the French-Malian Muslim who killed a woman police officer and then took hostages in the kosher supermarket, recorded an earlier “martyrdom video” in which he pledges allegiance to the “emir of the faithful,” Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the ISIS leader.
The clip is accompanied by a text describing Coulibaly as a “soldier of the Caliphate.” And Coulibaly insisted that he and the Kouachi brothers were working in tandem.
But there is a second possible scenario. The older brother, Saïd Kouachi, spent several months in Yemen in 2011 and according to American and Yemeni intelligence sources was trained by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Moreover, Chérif Kouachi told the Paris-based TV news channel BFM-TV that he was financed by the notorious al-Qaida preacher Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen and had been dispatched by AQAP.
AQAP commander Nasr Ibn Ali al-Ansi claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack. According to a source inside AQAP, the organization chose the target to avenge the honor of the prophet Mohammed and to sound a warning to all Western countries. The Paris target was also chosen because of France’s high profile role in the war on Islam and oppressed nations. The source revealed that the name and photo of one of the cartoonists had featured in a wanted poster in AQAP’s Inspire magazine.
One of the main challenges for the investigators will be to determine whether ISIS or AQAP was behind the attack; AQAP is the main affiliate of al-Qaida Central under the leadership of Ayman alZawahiri, a bitter rival of the ISIS “Caliph” al-Baghdadi. It would be a very worrying surprise if it turns out that this was a “joint venture” and that both organizations have succeeded in embedding sleeper cells in European territory.
French intelligence and police have been widely criticized for failing to prevent the attacks, as the suspects were well known and probably monitored. But the problem they face is huge. There are an estimated 5,000 jihadists and sympathizers in France and more than 1,000 French jihadist fighters in Syria and Iraq. Moreover, the French authorities are working under difficult legal and political constraints.
Worse, the fight against the terrorists is likely to get tougher. The more coalition forces succeed in the battle against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the more foreign fighters are likely to return home and intensify the terrorist threat on European soil.
It remains to be seen whether the unprecedented manifestations of national and international solidarity signal the awakening of European politicians and public opinion to the full extent of the threat of the returning foreign fighters and to the wider threat of Islamist radicalization in their own backyards. And, most importantly, whether they are now ready to take in close cooperation the necessary political, legal and operational decisions to counter them.