Mumbai has come to Paris. The multiple terror attacks against civilian targets across the city of Paris on Friday night, which claimed 127 lives and left about 90 critically injured, has the Mumbai terrorist attacks written all over it.
The 2008 assault on India’s financial hub by the Lashkar-e-Taiba marked the beginning of what terrorist experts refer to as “high impact, low cost” terror attacks. These are technically primitive attacks that go for high-profile civilian targets in a city. They are not as spectacular as destroying a skyscraper or hijacking an airplane.
Terrorists compensate by the cold-blooded massacre of civilians in as many different targets as possible. As they use only simple weapons – guns and grenades level technology – interception of these terror cells is much more difficult. Not many people are involved in the preparation, and the logistics backup is minimal.
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Since Edward Snowden’s revelations of the degree of electronic surveillance used by intelligence agencies like the US National Security Agency, terrorist groups are also more likely to avoid cellphones or internet-based communications. Written letters or, most likely, face-to-face conversations are increasingly used by terror cells.
There is no doubt the multiple attacks in Paris on Friday night were inspired by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (IS), possibly using home-grown French Islamist terrorists. French officials have said one of the dead terrorists was carrying a Syrian passport.
The IS officially claimed responsibility, saying: “France and those who follow her voice must know that they remain the main target of Islamic State and that they will continue to smell the odour of death for having led the crusade, for having dared to insult our Prophet, for having boasted of fighting Islam in France and striking Muslims in the caliphate with their planes.”
An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 foreign fighters have flocked to join the ranks of IS in West Asia. They are largely drawn from Arab countries and Central Asia, but about 5,000 to 6,000 are from Europe.
Within Europe, France is the single largest source of IS recruits – a French parliamentary investigation estimated about half of all European recruits are from France.
The AFP news agency reported earlier this year French intelligence was monitoring 1,570 people who had some kind of connection to Syrian networks. Up to 7,000 more were considered at risk of joining IS at some point.
Al Qaeda, the other global terror group with a similar record, has taken a less bloody path in recent years following directives from its leadership to avoid indiscriminate civilian killing - because too many Muslims were being caught in the crossfire and it was costing the terror group popular support.
Osama Bin Laden saw the declaration of a caliphate as the end of the jihadi process and a consequence of consensus within the Islamic world. The IS, on the other hand, saw it as the starting point – and something to be imposed on those it conquered, Muslims included.
However, there is some logic to what the IS is doing. Unlike al Qaeda, the IS controls territory, has declared itself the 21st century caliphate and is imbued with a belief that the Islamic prophesies about the end of the world are set to come true in the near future.
It has been less concerned with waging global jihad in the sense practiced by al Qaeda and lacks bin Laden’s US obsession. The IS has tended to focus on foreign countries that have joined the international coalition fighting it.
It is probably not a coincidence that the Paris attacks came two months after France announced its first airstrikes against the IS and just before it was sending an aircraft carrier to carry out further attacks against the group.
France joined the coalition following IS involvement in the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks in January. The IS response is that it needed to avenge the satirical magazine’s making fun of Islam. In any case, its control of home-grown terrorists is often limited only to inspiration.
Ultimately, IS must be fought since it obviously sees fomenting terrorist attacks against other countries as an acceptable policy – and what it believes is acceptable is a matter of discretion to the “caliphate”. Journalists who have visited IS-held areas say its commanders speak of acquiring nuclear weapons and carrying out a “religious cleansing” of the world, wiping out billions of people.
The IS is clearly preparing a policy of inflicting enough damage to drive foreign governments from the coalition. It has been urging its foreign recruits to stay in their homelands and carry out attacks as when and needed. The Russian airliner that blew up over Egypt, killing more than 240 people on board, has been claimed by the IS as a response to Moscow’s intervention in the war in Syria.
Some governments have turned tail – Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pulled out of the anti-IS coalition as soon as he was elected. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, originally supportive of IS, were targeted when the two turned against IS under US pressure.
Noticeably, the US has yet to face a major ISIS attack and this is a testament to the strength of its domestic counterterrorism policies. But France was seen as a “hard state” when it came to terrorism as well and yet November 13 happened. Even China is nervous as 300 Chinese Muslims are known to have joined IS.
India has not been targeted. Our Mumbai attack was sourced from Pakistan, though the tactics followed have clearly been mimicked – but with an increasing number of Afghan and Pakistani groups declaring allegiance to IS and hundreds of Indians, Maldivians and Bangladeshis having fallen to the terror state’s siren call, this may only be a matter of time.
Remember, IS attacks for reasons other than just joining the international coalition – as the supposed caliphate it feels it must defend self-defined “Islamic interests” around the world.
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