Analysis: Paris terror attacks

France’s intelligence failure; Europe’s uphill battle against Islamic State

So widespread a terror onslaught should have been prevented, but the inability to tackle Islamic extremism in Europe goes far deeper

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

People react in front of the Carillon cafe and the Petit Cambodge restaurant in Paris Saturday Nov. 14, 2015, a day after over 120 people were killed in a series of shootings and explosions. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
People react in front of the Carillon cafe and the Petit Cambodge restaurant in Paris Saturday Nov. 14, 2015, a day after over 120 people were killed in a series of shootings and explosions. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Islamic State has now managed to carry out terror attacks in three locations in less than two weeks — the Sinai (where it brought down a Russian passenger plane), Beirut (where it carried out twin bombings in a Hezbollah neighborhood) and now Paris.

Nowhere, it would appear, is off limits. And nowhere is protected.

Russia, Arab states, Western states and even rival Shi’ite extremist groups are targets for its radical Sunni terrorism.

And it is managing to operate even as it comes under heavy assault in Syria from Russia, the US, the Kurds, Arab states, and the Shi’ite axis of Iran, Hezbollah and Bashar Assad’s Alawites. Indeed, it is unsurprising that it has shifted the focus of its activity to distant locales as it comes under attack in Syria.

In its claim of responsibility for the Paris bloodbath, Islamic State set out further intended targets: Rome, London and Washington DC. These may be empty threats. Not because IS is incapable of action. Rather because, as the Paris carnage shows, when Islamic State does attack, it doesn’t talk a lot about it beforehand.

It may be that the sheer scale and horror of the Paris attacks will prompt a certain awakening in Western European states, which have been failing in the battle against Islamic State. Establishing the kind of terror network required for Friday night’s multiple coordinated attacks did not happen overnight. That there were at least eight terrorists involved, with weapons and explosives and suicide belts, acting in concert, points to a stark failure by Western intelligence, which ought to have been able to get wind of the planned onslaught. First reports indicate that at least one of terrorists was on a French intelligence watch list.

Nevertheless, the fact is that the European intelligence community is facing an almost impossible task. The failure was not only this weekend, but in the many years past. Parts of Europe have, over the decades, been allowed to become entirely Muslim areas, utterly neglected by the intelligence services — and neglected economically and socially. Areas like these provide recruits to the ranks of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. And some of these recruits, it would seem, are then ordered back to Europe, to set up sleeper cells and await the call for terrorist action.

That may turn out to be what happened Friday night in Paris.

It is not going to be easy for the intelligence agencies to penetrate these terrorist networks. Simultaneously, the US, Russia and the Arab world cannot agree on how to most effectively tackle Islamic State on the battlefields of Syria. So long as that remains the case, Europe is all too likely to remain under terrorist fire.

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