What the Paris shootings tell us about terror in 2015

Workers hide on rooftop from machine gunfire in Paris Charlie Hebdo attack France was yesterday struck by the largest-ever terrorist attack on its soil, the worst in the EU for a decade, and the deadliest in Europe as a whole since Anders Breivik’s killing spree in Oslo four years ago. It was a direct attack not just on democracy, but also one of its central pillars: the right of free speech in a climate free from fear and violence. But, despite the trauma, it’s important to put the attackers’ methods in their proper perspective.

First, the attackers’ level of sophistication should not be overestimated. American counterterrorism officials might be correct to portray the shooters as “well-trained and organized”, but this is relative to the civilian context and the crudity of previous attacks. While their movements were assured and their killing efficient, their opponents were unarmed civilians in close quarters or wounded policemen lying on the ground. Only in relation to, say, Lee Rigby’s murder, or last month’s amateurish Sydney hostage crisis, do these look like serious professionals.

One former US infantry marine judges from the available videos that “there appears to be little use of cover and their shooting stance or posture is not what would be expected from highly trained fighters”, and concludes that “there’s no indication the assailants had military training”. The killers may have known that an editorial meeting was in place, as they headed straight for the editor and murdered him and his police bodyguard first. But if this indicates reconnaissance, it can’t have been particularly good: they entered the wrong building at first, before realizing their error. And, on their escape, the terrorists reportedly struck a bollard, forcing them to hijack an elderly Frenchman’s car – but leaving an ID card in the other vehicle.

Of the three suspects, at least one – Cherif Kouachi – is reported to have tried to join jihadists in Iraq as early as 2005, although he was arrested before he made it on the plane to Damascus. If evidence emerges that Kouachi traveled to Iraq or Syria in the past several years, this might suggest a degree of training in camps. One eyewitness reported that the attackers claimed they were from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). This was the Yemen-based branch of Al Qaeda that, prior to the growth of Isis last year, was viewed as the most capable of all jihadist groups in its ability to target the West.

There is a possible, if questionable, link between Yemen and Syria: AQAP is reported to have worked with Al Qaida’s affiliates in Syria, where the Yemenis might have easier access to European fighters. But AQAP’s foreign operations have focused on placing sophisticated explosives on Western-bound aircraft, and more evidence would be needed to draw a link to Yemen. Moreover, the Wall Street Journal points to “French intelligence shared with U.S. officials” which suggests the attackers were not operating on behalf of a larger group. The detention of seven people in France might lead us to revise this judgment, but it is simply too early to say. Even if one or more of the suspects had traveled overseas, the level of training required to coordinate a limited attack on a soft target, with two to three gunmen, may not be as high as has been assumed.

Second, the episode doesn’t neatly fit into any of our usual categories. It is already being called a “Mumbai-style” attack, in reference to the drawn-out urban assault that took place in India’s financial capital in 2008. Indeed, Western law enforcement and intelligence agencies have given great thought over the past seven years to the tactical demands presented by multiple gunmen disrupting a city. For instance, British armed police were given more powerful guns and larger stocks of ammunition five years ago. But the distinguishing feature of Mumbai was that the terrorists created a condition of siege, prolonging the violence, keeping the headlines, and tying down huge numbers of India’s police and paramilitary units.

Yesterday’s attack, by contrast, was less sophisticated, equally jarring, and different in key respects. It showed little sign of the remote command and control, use of explosives, and exploitation of real-time intelligence from social media that was on display in India. The Paris attacks were focused on a single building, conducted briskly, and – most surprisingly – ended with the terrorists withdrawing. A better if still imperfect analogy might be the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. This jars with our assumptions about attackers’ suicidal instincts, and therefore throws up tactical problems.

While national infrastructure can be closely policed – several hundred soldiers of the French army were in fact deployed to high-profile Paris sites just before Christmas – it’s impossible to do so everywhere, and attacks are highly likely to succeed in their opening stage. Well-trained Western security forces are likely to be able to prevent anything on the order of Mumbai, but responding within five minutes, the reported length of yesterday's shooting, is implausible. The problem then becomes a manhunt - hardly a novel challenge for law enforcement.

Remember, howeer, that if such attacks blend the light footprint of the lone wolf with the impact of larger, structured plots, they also have some disadvantages of each. Securing assault rifles in Western Europe is possible, but far from easy; ammunition is tougher still. Cartridge cases reputedly found at the site indicate the use of Yugoslavian ammunition from 1986. Obtaining such equipment in Britain has traditionally been even harder.

Paris is not a radical rupture with the past. In the context of small, crude attacks across North America and Europe, it is a modest jump in complexity – but not even close to Mumbai, and not, as one newspaper put it, “France’s 9/11”.

Shashank Joshi is a senior research fellow at the RUSI foreign policy think tank, and an expert in South Asia and the Middle East.

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