Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Terror Attacks in France Could Bring Terrorist Competition Fears to Fruition

     No terrorist group has taken responsibility for the deadly and tragic terrorist attack in France yet.  Many terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State Group, have criticized and condemned the French news outlet that was attacked today for its depiction and caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.  Most reports are cautious at this early stage not to jump to conclusions regarding the group directly responsible for the attack - or possibly that lone actors were behaving independently.  The world's attention is currently focused intently on the Islamic State group as they are the wealthiest terrorist group and control wide swaths of territory while exhibiting brutal tactics.  However, al-Qaeda still maintains a fair amount of influence and their global reach still rivals the Islamic State group's.

     According to the New York Times, several experts believe al-Qaeda might be responsible for the attacks.  The assault on the news outlet in France, "showed a degree of sophistication and forethought that was lacking from those carried out by Islamic State sympathizers — like the Sydney siege, led by a convert to Islam who brought the wrong jihadist flag," the Times wrote.  The Times also cited Peter Neumann, a terrorism expert at King’s College London,  who stated, "the assault in Paris looked more organized than previous lone-wolf attacks and that it was possible that a branch of Al Qaeda was behind it."  

     So far, it is unclear if the Islamic State group has trained fighters to wage these lone wolf-like attacks in western cities.  Some indicate given self-declared caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's proclamation in an audio message for individuals to "erupt volcanoes of jihad" as well as other spokespeople from the group who urged lone wolf attacks that the group did not have a strong a reach or was not training individuals.  A report issued by West Point's Combating Terrorism Center called "The Group That Calls Itself a State: Understanding the Evolution and Challenges of the Islamic State," stated that al-Qaeda relocated certain foreign fighters into different divisions to carry out certain tasks.  Regarding the 9/11 hijackers, the report stated, "These aspiring foreign fighters from Germany expected to wage jihad in Chechnya or Afghanistan but instead were diverted to participate in the 9/11 plot after a brief trip to Afghanistan in 1999...they [did not] have the intention of conducting attacks in their homelands when they left. Instead, all were persuaded to do so by their respective terrorist groups once overseas."  Additionally, reports noted that the suspected terrorists exhibited skilled and professional training.

     Experts in the past have feared that given this new schism between terrorist groups, namely al-Qaeda core and the Islamic State group, they will be in constant competition to one-up the other.  This could mean increased attacks in the west similar to the one today in France or in Sydney, Australia.  The good news for governments is that the lessons of 9/11 have been learned and waging a full scale operation vis a vis 9/11 is much harder but not impossible.  

     On the flip-side, western governments are much more likely to see attacks similar to the ones on the French magazine and in New York City in which an individual attacked police officers with a hatchet.   A study titled "The Modus Operandi of Jihadi Terrorists in Europe" warns, "[terrorist] weapons and tactics are becoming more diverse. In the 1990s and early 2000s, jihadis in Europe operated in groups and planned bomb attacks with certain types of explosives. In recent years, more terrorists have worked alone and they used a broader repertoire of weapons...but [] an increasing number resort to single actor terrorism and crude weapons to avoid detection."  The study also indicated that while improvised explosive devices (IEDs) remain the preferred weapon or delivery method, there has been an increase in knife and firearm attacks. The authors cite more difficulty in acquiring materials for explosive devices given heightened security precautions as an increase in firearm and knife attacks.

      One thing is clear from today's attacks especially taken within the scope of recent events - these attacks will not cease anytime soon.  What must be done to prevent similar attacks is to gain as much knowledge as possible regarding terrorist networks and messaging.  Redressing grievances and curbing radical messaging is the first step in preventing continued terrorism.     

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