Listen to this article
In Paris on Friday evening, in the busy, crowded cultural centre of Europe, thronging with ordinary citizens winding down for a weekend, Isis struck with its most audacious and bloody attack on the west to date.
In its scale and planning, the violence in Paris — which has left 132 people dead — marks a shift beyond anything seen from the jihadis. With at least eight plotters already known to have been directly involved with blood on their hands, it is also shaping up to be the most complex successful plot planned from abroad against the west since 9/11.
It is the sum of European intelligence agencies’ fears. Ever since the 2008 terror attack by Lashkar-e-Taiba in Mumbai, they have worried about the potential for a similar marauding band of well-armed murderers to wreak havoc in a western capital.
Until now, no jihadi organisation has had the wherewithal to accomplish it, although there have been signs it was coming.
In the past few months, two senior western counter-terrorism officials told the Financial Times that their assessment of Isis’s objectives and ambitions far beyond its borders had shifted dramatically. Isis wanted to mount a “spectacular” attack of the kind al-Qaeda made its name perpetrating, one of them said, but what had been unclear — until Friday — was whether they had the capability.
Isis, which has long focused on inspiring random acts of violence — urging “lone wolves” to kill, as in the Brussels Jewish museum shootings of May 2014, or the Sousse beach massacre in Tunisia of July this year — now appears to be honing its efforts to inspire followers, and focusing it with more careful planning and co-ordination.
“It’s not just about inspiring any more, but motivating,” says Patrick Skinner, former CIA official and now director of special projects at the intelligence consultancy the Soufan Group. “They are projecting their terror further and more deliberately.”
Speaking on Saturday morning, President François Hollande was unequivocal. “These attacks were prepared, planned from the outside, with internal complicity,” he said.
Raffaello Pantucci, director of international studies at the think-tank Rusi, added: “[It is] a well-co-ordinated, substantial attack with multiple cells and multiple targets. This kind of thing will have required a lot of training and a lot of preparation.”
As events unfolded late into the evening, the violence looked random and vicious. But it was not. The targets — a stadium, a Cambodian restaurant, a shopping mall, a concert hall — were chosen with deliberation and care.
In an official statement claiming responsibility, Isis carefully listed its targets, couching its choice as one determined by its moral and theocratic superiority. Paris, it said, was a capital of “abominations and perversion”.
As with much of Isis’s terror, the attack and the horrific imagery it has produced were designed to send a message with dual meanings.
For Isis’s enemies it is a revenge and a show of strength and intimidation thousands of miles from the borders of the “caliphate”. Such attacks, according to Isis’s terror playbook, are aimed at causing political division as much as they are likely to strengthen enemies’ resolve. And they are a muscular display of power at a time when Isis’s own core territory is under increasing pressure.
But crucially, for Isis’s potential recruits — thousands of radical or sympathetic Muslims in Europe and elsewhere around the world — they mean something very different. The attacks, Isis’s message says to them, invoking Allah and the prophet 16 times in its claim of responsibility, struck at “idolators”.
In both an operational and an ideological sense, it is a scaling up of the Charlie Hebdo atrocity less than a year ago. For Isis and its would-be recruits, this was holy retribution on a “celebration of perversity”.
The message to the recruits was one designed to play on existing cultural cleavages. Isis, it showed, would strike at the elements of Western society that made them most uncomfortable. For those sympathetic to the cause, it was a call to arms.
For the citizens of Paris and the peaceful world, this was mass murder on a Friday night. “This is an attack on all of humanity and universal values we share,” US President Barack Obama said on Friday evening.