Why Paris was attacked and how France may deal with terror strikes

Why Paris was attacked and how France may deal with terror strikes

French security seemed to have responded in a smarter manner and the attackers were dealt with in a matter of hours. But the death toll can be expected to mount in the days ahead.

Surya Gangadharan
  • IBNLive.com
  • Last Updated: November 15, 2015, 9:04 AM IST
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"Sophisticated planning, simplicity of execution," was how a US Homeland Security expert described the Paris attacks in which at least 127 people were killed. It was sophisticated because many months may have gone into planning the attack, selecting the targets, reconnaissance and surveillance before the strike was ordered.

The strike was simplicity itself because terrorism in this day and age comes in a standardised package: AK47s, grenades and of course suicide bombers. Unhappily for France, all are probably easily available within the country given the reported large number of French nationals (Arab descent?) who have joined the Islamic State (IS) in Syria.

The French Interior Ministry was recently quoted as stating that 571 French residents were fighting alongside IS in Syria, that 141 had died and 370 had returned home and been arrested. More alarming, police and intelligence agencies were tracking the activities of a staggering 11,000 people.

But intelligence gathering, always a tough, gritty business, has become a tougher call these days because of technology. For one, the days of small cells comprising a few people and operating in large towns and cities are over. That was the al Qaeda way. Islamic State doesn't need cells when it has the Internet, through which a barrage of propaganda and slick videos convert minds young and old.

The question here is something we in India are want to raise every time there is a terror attack or blast: Was there "intelligence failure"?

Understandably the French are tight lipped. Perhaps, as it happened in the case of 26/11, the information was out there but somebody had to sit down and put it all together. We should have something from Paris before long. Very likely, the attackers may belong to the 11,000 being tracked.

This is not the first time France has been attacked by Islamists. In 1995, Algerian Islamists fighting their secular government set off bombs in Paris killing eight and injuring 200 people. It was their way of punishing France.

That was a long time ago but recent French actions would have not endeared that country to Islamists of other hues.

French military and intelligence services have been tracking Islamist militants in the Sahara since 2013. France has been militarily active against Islamists threatening regimes in its French speaking former African colonies (Mali, Chad). France is the first (and only) European country to join the US air strikes on the IS in Iraq in 2014. Add to that if more proof was needed, there was the January 2015 attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hedbo in which 17 people were killed. France is also eminently "reachable" from Africa, unlike the US.

The security pundits on CNN and the BBC have already drawn comparisons with the November 2008 Mumbai attack in which 166 people were killed and nearly 300 injured. But that went on for four days. French security seemed to have responded in a smarter manner and the attackers were dealt with in a matter of hours. But the death toll can be expected to mount in the days ahead.

The attack could lend new urgency to an India-France joint working group on terrorism announced in April 2015 during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Paris. It laid the ground for sharing information on terror networks and exchanging experiences on the phenomenon of radicalization. Expect more confabulations between India, the US, Britain and Israel on the Paris aftermath.

But all eyes are on what France will do in the weeks ahead. President Francois Hollande has pledged an all out war. French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle is scheduled to return to Arabian waters within days. Expect revenge attacks on the IS and more air strikes.

An opinion poll published in the paper Le Parisien in September 2015, indicated that 61% of French people favoured sending troops to fight the IS in Syria. Is this something the French people would still want? We should have our answer soon enough.

Author Surya Gangadharan is a veteran journalist who has specialised in foreign, defense and strategic affairs. He lives in Delhi.

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