What is Behind the Paris Attacks?

Briefing Note

What is Behind the Paris Attacks?

16 Nov 2015

Friday's attacks in Paris, which killed at least 129 people, demonstrate the particular threat that France faces from jihadi groups in the Middle East.

Friday's coordinated attacks in Paris are the deadliest in Europe since the Madrid bombings in 2004. Details are still emerging of the scale of the attack, but ISIS have claimed responsibility in an official statement, saying its fighters, strapped with suicide bombing belts and carrying machine guns, carried out the attacks in various "carefully chosen" locations in the heart of the capital. 

In a similar justification for the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices earlier in the year, ISIS cite the insulting of the Prophet Mohammed, describing Paris as "a capital of perversion and abomination." The statement, produced by a group calling itself "Islamic State in France," describes the attackers' aims of putting "fear into the Crusaders' hearts in their own land."

Eyewitnesses reported that gunmen blamed France's intervention in Syria and shouted 'God is Great' in Arabic, and the attack bears all the hallmarks of having been directed or encouraged by a jihadi group. President Francois Hollande has described the attacks as an "act of war" by ISIS, organised from abroad with internal help. 

Although details about the attackers are yet to be established, a French citizen, Omar Ismaïl Mostefai, has been named as one of the gunmen by French police. Mostefai was allegedly known to security services and had been blacklisted by police as being a potential target for radicalisation in 2010. A Syrian passports was also found near the bodies of two of the suicide bombers, the latter allegedly used by a refugee to cross into Europe via the Greek island of Leros in October.

France has been subject to specific vitriol in ISIS's propaganda magazine Dabiq. In October 2014, the ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani called for attacks on all countries to have participated in airstrikes on the group, but reserved particular bile for the "spiteful and filthy French." Later issues of the magazine praised fighters that conduct lone-attacks like the Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015, describing such attacks as having equal value to joining the fight in Syria and Iraq.

France is also particularly vulnerable to attacks of this nature, with over 250 of its citizens having returned from fighting in Syria, and over 520 still in the country. Many of these will have fought for ISIS or other Salafi-jihadi groups.

There is also the possibility that, despite the apparent sophistication of this attack, it was inspired but not directed by jihadi groups further afield. ISIS propaganda has glorified those who 'reject nationalism' by fighting wherever they find themselves. However, given the high proportion of French jihadis in Syria and Iraq – and the high numbers who have returned to France – even if this attack was 'inspired' rather than directed, it will have benefited from substantial experience.

The high numbers of French citizens willing to travel to join foreign jihadi groups is frequently linked to social and economic deprivation of immigrant communities in the banlieues. However, a November 2014 study by the Paris-based think tank CPDSI demonstrated that extremist narratives in the country are appealing to a far wider range. Many of those known to have joined ISIS are converts, including many from middle class and secular backgrounds. Indeed, it has been reported that as many as 20 per cent of French jihadis in Syria are converts who left within months of their conversion.

This page will be updated as more information becomes available.

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