The massacre of innocents in Paris has brought to the forefront a dramatic shift in ISIS’s tactics and strategy. For some time it has been widely believed that ISIS’s overriding aim is to capture and hold territory and create a single caliphate out of the present borders of the Middle East, rather than trying to bomb the West or pull off spectacular attacks like the toppling of the Twin Towers in New York. Such raids on the so-called “far enemy,” aimed at bringing down the capitalist order, have long been the mission of al-Qaeda; whereas the much newer ISIS, in seeking to conquer the “near enemy” in the Levant, has given priority to establishing its caliphate now.
Yet the recent string of ISIS attacks across the Middle East and now in Europe suggests that its aims, and methods, are more complicated. In October a bombing in Ankara that killed 102 people was blamed on ISIS by the Turkish government. A few weeks later, ISIS’s Sinai affiliate claimed to have brought down a Russian airliner, killing 224 people. On November 12, ISIS claimed responsibility for a double-suicide bombing of a busy shopping street in a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut that left forty-four people dead. There were bombings in Baghdad. And then there was Paris.
In fact none of these targets is random. What they show is that ISIS is now determined to launch attacks against those states that are waging war against it. Turkey has just given the US government permission to use some of its airbases for strikes against ISIS; Hezbollah is helping Bashar al-Assad fight ISIS. The Russians are now bombing ISIS and other groups, while the French are crucial partners in the anti-ISIS coalition. French warplanes bombing ISIS from runways in the Gulf states are about to get a fresh boost as the French government sends its only aircraft carrier to the Gulf.
ISIS’s message is thus clear—the group is waging an all-out deliberate war against all those countries that are lining up to fight it. Again, this is not an attempt to take down the Western order, in the way that al-Qaeda was trying to do, nor is it a reaction to the evils of Western heathens. It is a direct reaction to what is being done to ISIS by coalition forces. ISIS is trying to weaken and divide the coalition into those countries that may now act more cautiously or even pull out of the coalition, and those that will stay and will continue to be targeted by ISIS. There is already evidence that the Arab Gulf countries—including Saudi Arabia, which has the largest air force in the region—have drastically reduced their contribution to the bombing campaign in Syria. Instead they have focused on their war in Yemen, which is really a side show compared to the threat posed by the Islamic State they should now be facing up to.
The Paris attacks also show that ISIS has learned some important tactical lessons from other extremist groups. In November 2008, Pakistani gunmen belonging to Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LET), the Lahore-based extremist group, landed by boat on the Mumbai coast, entered the city, and according to a preplanned operation, attacked popular civilian locations—including a cafe, two hotels, the railway station, a Jewish center, and a shopping mall. A total of 166 people were killed and hundreds more wounded before the security forces could root out the attackers, especially from the five-star Taj Mahal Hotel, where fifty-two people died. The entire city was under siege for three days—the longest-running terrorist attack in history.
LET, which in the 1980s and 1990s was trained by Pakistani military personnel as an auxiliary force to use against India, has carried out terrorist attacks mainly against Indian forces in Indian Kashmir and against a few Indian targets elsewhere, such as India’s embassy in Kabul. Its ideology does not extend to establishing a global caliphate or waging global jihad, which makes the group more orthodox, conservative, and limited in its objectives. This is the excuse used by the Pakistan government not to disband LET for the time being, although Pakistan’s army chief General Raheel Sharif, who is now visiting Washington, has vowed to disband all terrorist groups based in Pakistan over an extended period of time
Since September 11, LET has changed its name several times and set up humanitarian relief organizations and benign religious groups, all of which have been swiftly put on a banned list of terrorist groups by the United Nations. Most recently Pakistan complied with the UN in banning media coverage of their activities, but the new organizations themselves have not been banned.
LET’s most important innovations in jihadi warfare are mass attacks on civilian targets and the strategy of fighting to the death rather than blowing yourself up. Whereas suicide attacks used by other Kashmiri groups fighting the Indian army had become commonplace in the 1990s, LET rejected suicide as anti-Islamic (suicide is specifically condemned in the Koran). Thus LET sieges in which trained extremists attack and fight to the death became common. This was, according to the group, the hallmark of a true Muslim martyr.
If there was a risk of being captured alive in such an attack, then a suicide vest could be used, but having proved your valor by first fighting so hard, such suicides could be justified as last resort actions to avoid capture or being forced to disclose information about your comrades. LET militants were trained in siege tactics and holding hostages for propaganda purposes as long as possible. Kalashnikov semi-automatic rifles, grenades, smoke bombs, and pistols became the weapons of choice—tactics that were also used in the Charlie Hebdo massacre and now by ISIS.
In Paris on Friday, ISIS planners drew on a combination of the tactics used in Mumbai, including attacks on civilian areas, and an attempted siege, as well as suicide attacks, to create maximum chaos. At the Bataclan concert hall, attackers attempted to create a prolonged siege, except the hostage crisis was dealt with too swiftly by the French police for ISIS to take advantage of the situation. Within an hour, the hall was stormed and successfully retaken by police. At the Stade de France soccer stadium, where a national game between France and Germany was underway for which French President François Hollande was present, attackers in suicide vests appear to have planned to explode themselves amid the 80,000 fans watching. Stopped by security guards from entering, however, they blew themselves up at the gates before they were apprehended.
Much of the rest of the ISIS playbook in Paris—the meticulous planning, the selection of soft targets, the multiple simultaneous attacks by different teams used to create a sense of chaos in the streets, the mayhem created—was inspired by what the LET used in Mumbai. In such attacks nothing is left to chance, nothing is left unplanned.
Ever since the Mumbai attacks, European officials have been preparing for an assault like what happened in Paris; and French security forces, despite the intelligence lapse, seem to have responded well in preventing many more killings inside the stadium. British officials, in particular, have said that British Special Forces have also been retrained to be able to better respond to such attacks. “Ever since the coordinated firearms attacks in Mumbai in 2008, we have all been working together to ensure we could respond to such an attack,” Prime Minister David Cameron said following the events in Paris. “It is clear that the threat from ISIL is evolving.”
But no matter how much preparation, many civilian areas in Europe and the West are extremely difficult to secure from terrorist threats. Nothing would be more effective in combating ISIS than the successful conclusion of the joint peace plan that is now being negotiated between the big powers and Syrian groups, but especially between Russia and the US. By bringing together the various countries involved in the Syrian war in a unified front, much as happened after the September 11 attacks, such a plan could destroy the efforts of ISIS to ruthlessly exploit the differences between major powers and regional states.
Such peace efforts have begun in Vienna but they are five years too late. In the meantime ISIS has added new trauma to the already fraught refugee crisis in Europe, while the threat of more attacks in Britain, Germany, and the other countries involved in the anti-ISIS coalition is greater than ever.