The attacks in Paris, perpetrated by individuals motivated by extremist (religious-based) ideology, reify the challenge of combating threats that are decentralized and able to draw on sophisticated weaponry, technology, training, and planning/implementation.
Although initial thoughts sparked by the attacks in Paris relate to what is happening in Syria and Iraq, and the much-debated threat of returning European foreign fighters, this kind of action appears completely different from what we have seen so far. It is also a troubling departure from what we could expect from “normal” violent Islamist activists, even the ones who gained some experience on the Syrian or Iraqi fronts over recent years.
They also draw sharp awareness to an increasingly troubling issue: the ability of extremism and extremists (or jihadi groups) to mobilize and attack Western countries. Combining this with the nature of the attack and the precision of the attackers tantamount to an actual military attack reveals the existence of a new kind of jihadist threat that the West had not really seen before.
Two attacks have taken place against soldiers in the West in 2013 and since 2009, over 50% of jihadist extremists who were planning attacks within the United States (US) over a period of two years intended to carry out their attacks against soldiers and military bases.
The first two attacks and those being plotted fit the category of homegrown terrorism. Two of them, including the ones being planned, targeted military personnel, but all of them had specific targets in mind. Paris, however, is an interesting scenario that involved highly-attentive professionals with military training that one would receive from combat experience, and who operated as a commando unit.
These attacks do not resemble those to which we have become accustomed. Instead, the most comparable attack is that which occurred at Munich. Such attacks can empower extremists or people with extremist views that might already feel like they can act without accountability to the protective authorities of their targets (the direct and indirect victims) and of the communities or societies in which they perpetrate the attacks.
The kind of professionalism and cold-calculated accuracy was apparent, in the various phases of the action, and this could have only been achieved with extensive experience and specific training that is currently displayed only by very few terrorist groups, mostly al-Qaeda-linked, such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) or the much-debated and even alleged existence of the Khorasan (Islamist group).
These were considerable factors in the attack, and important aspects of the 1972 Munich massacre that will never recede from the memory of that generation, when an auxiliary unit called the Black September Organization (BSO) murdered 12 people (11 Israeli athletes and a German police officer).
At a tense four-hour press conference Munich’s chief of police stated that, although highly-clever, the attackers were “too professional … there were not amateurs” (quoted in The Guardian). Less than two months following the attacks, the Germans founded the police counterterrorism branch (Grenzschutzgruppe 9 der Bundespolizei or GSG 9).
France’s Anti-Terrorism Operations Coordination Unit (UNCLAT) coordinates the various departments that comprise the large counterterrorism system of the country. Terrorist attacks of the 1980s and 1990s and attacks by Iranian-backed members of a Hezbollah cell provoked a wave of changes to France’s counterterrorism structure. These latest attacks could impact the system in similar ways. There have been recent successes in preventing attacks in France, which French President François Holland spoke of on Wednesday.
There is the assumption that such counterterror units, rather than leading in the fight against terrorism, merely follow in the wake of violent events. Either knowledge about radicalization and countering or preventing extremism within the state has loitered around those formulating and implementing policy or has failed to yield results post-implementation, or countering violent extremism initiatives have failed in preparation of foreign fighters or jihadists returning home after obtaining valuable combat experience. Discussions about the need to draft effective policy and the general issue have not permeated social groups in society.
This assumption does not play off the importance of preventing and monitoring the threat of ordinary European foreign fighters, but instead brings to the surface the existence of another, even more dangerous, threat regarding groups currently less considered by the world media landscape and counterterrorism institutions.
If confirmed, it would bring back in the spotlight the ongoing confrontation between the current two main fields of the world jihadist movement, the new al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State and al-Qaeda and its international branches. The latter, cornered by several months of the apparently superior media and military means of ISIS is now striking back to reconquer the attention of the international jihadist scene in the way that was always strongest—through spectacular and audacious attacks on symbolic Western targets.
*This op-ed piece was co-authored with Eugenio Dacrema and previously posted in DefenceReport.
Eugenio Dacrema is a PhD student at the University of Trento where he focuses on the history of economic relations between the European Union and North African countries. He writes for several Italian national newspapers, including Corriere della Sera, Il Foglio, Limes, Formiche and Linkiesta, and writes for the Italian think tank, Institute for International Political Studies.