A world on high alert saw dawn rise on a terror-stricken Paris on Saturday, with national leaders claiming solidarity with the French, all while calling for a redoubling of efforts to fight what British Prime Minister David Cameron called a “terrorist aim” designed to “destroy our way of life.”
More than 120 people were killed and some 200 injured in a set of six coordinated attacks on what had been regular Friday night in the City of Lights. ISIS called it an attack on what they called the “capital of abominations and perversion,” adding the brutal targeting of civilians was “only the start of the storm.”
According to a statement from ISIS, the attack was carried out by well-trained “youths” who sprayed machine gun fire into restaurants and nightclubs and then detonated suicide vests. Reuters reports that one of the gunmen who died after attacking a Paris concert hall had French nationality and was known to have ties with Islamist militants. A Syrian and an Egyptian passport were found near the bodies of two suicide bombers.
From Washington to London, from Stockholm to Madrid, leaders hailed common cause with Paris. In New York City, the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center were lit in blue, white, and red in solidarity with the French people.
President Obama called France “our oldest ally,” and vowed that the US will “go after any terrorist networks that go after our people.” In London, Mr. Cameron said threat level remained “severe,” which means an attack there is likely imminent.
The victims were people “not seeking to harm anyone, going about their way of life, our way of life, and were killed by brutal, callous murderers that want to destroy everything our countries stand for … we will not let them, and we will redouble our efforts to wipe out this poisonous extremist ideology,” Cameron said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: "This attack on freedom is not only aimed at Paris. We are all targets, and it affects all of us,” she added. “For that reason we will respond together.... We know that our life of freedom is stronger than terror,” she said. “Let us answer the terrorists by living our values with courage.”
The attacks were deadliest on French soil since World War II, but also became the third major attack on European capitals after Al Qaeda strikes on London (2005) and Madrid (2004). Analysts agreed it was likely a response to Western efforts to stop the spread of the ISIS caliphate in Syria and Iraq.
The implications are profound for the US and the Obama White House.
Earlier Friday, Obama called ISIS “contained” in the Middle East, a notion that the Paris attacks throw into question. The US has in some ways downplayed ISIS’ capabilities, but the reality, experts say, is that ISIS now poses a more fundamental threat than Al Qaeda. To be sure, Al Qaeda’s focus on hitting the US homeland has made it a priority for American military and law enforcement since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 killed nearly 3,000 people. But in the past four years, ISIS has become a more powerful state actor than Al Qaeda, and has shown repeated capability of orchestrating major battle damage outside of its territory.
The Paris attacks also came as President Obama stepped up drone and jet strikes in the region. An air attack on an ISIS leader in Libya appears to have been successful, and a drone attack on a convoy may have killed the so-called “Jihadi John,” a British national who became a major recruiting hero for ISIS after videos showing him beheading Western journalists.
Reports that the US has stepped up attacks on ISIS-controlled oil fields starting with the launch of Operation Tidal Wave II on Oct. 21 coincided with commentary from Donald Trump that, if elected president, he will "blow the [expletive] out of them," meaning the oil fields.
And earlier this month, the US reversed course and sent a small group (50 or less) of US special operations troops for the first time into Syria, in an acknowledgement by Obama that the US needs more “boots on the ground” in the region. Pressure will likely now mount for the White House to step up its military campaign against ISIS.
“President Obama has made his view clear that the crisis in Syria cannot be resolved militarily, and that remains the case,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a speech on Thursday, a day before the Paris attacks, in Washington, D.C. “But it’s also clear that the chance for successful diplomacy depends, in part, on the ability to exert leverage, on control of territory, on perceptions about who is gaining or has the upper hand. That’s why it matters that there is increasing evidence in both Iraq and Syria that [ISIS] can be defeated – even routed – when faced by the combination of coalition airstrikes and effective partners on the ground.” Kerry lauded a year-old Western coalition that has “launched more than 8,000 air strikes in Iraq and Syria … there were more than 40 [Wednesday night].”
On Saturday, Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov both condemned the attacks as they began meetings in Vienna with senior representatives from Iran, Saudi Arabia and other countries with strongly conflicting views on how to end the more than four-year war in Syria. Of the Paris attacks, Kerry said: "If they've done anything, they've encouraged us today to do even harder work to make progress and to help resolve the crises that we face."
ISIS is just one part of the complex Syrian conflict. But beyond Syria, ISIS has become a more determined and deadly terrorist organization than even Al Qaeda. In recent years, Al Qaeda communiqués have urged combatants to kill specific targets instead of attacking civilian gatherings. With its attack on Paris nightlife on Friday, ISIS showed its willingness to strike all “infidels.” It’s a strategy that could backfire, as it did for Al Qaeda. But for now, a willingness to kill indiscriminately has made it a more alarming force.
“The Islamic State’s triumphs so far have profound implications for US counterterrorism," Daniel Byman, a Middle East analysis for the Brookings Institution, told the House Homeland Security Committee in April. “The good news is that the Islamic State is not targeting the American homeland – at least for now. The bad news is that the Islamic State is far more successful in achieving its goals than Al Qaeda has been.” Thousands of foreign fighters under the ISIS banner, he added, means that “US officials legitimately fear they pose a counter-terrorism problem for the West.”
Paris saw its first major terror attack last year, when Islamic militants attacked the offices of the Charles Hebdo satirical magazine. Since then, France has seen several smaller-scale terror attacks this year, including an armed attack on a high-speed train which was thwarted in part by three Americans.
ISIS may see Paris as a symbol of "perversion," but that's not how Western nations and leaders see it.
“Paris itself represents the timeless values of human progress,” Obama said. “We are reminded in this time of tragedy that the bonds of liberté and égalité and fraternité are not only values that the French people care so deeply about, but they are values that we share. And those values are going to endure far beyond any act of terrorism or the hateful vision of those who perpetrated the crimes this evening.”