When the Islamic State stormed onto the scene in Syria and Iraq, it seemed focused on seizing territory in its own neighborhood. But in the last two weeks, the so-called soldiers of the caliphate appear to have demonstrated a chilling reach, with terrorist attacks against Russia, in Lebanon and now in Europe.
The seemingly synchronized assaults that turned Paris into a war zone on Friday came just days after a bombing targeted a Shiite district of Beirut controlled by Iran’s ally, Hezbollah, and a Russian passenger jet was downed over Egypt. The rapid succession of strikes, all claimed by the Islamic State, suggested that the regional war has turned into a global one.
For President Barack Obama and U.S. allies, the attacks are almost certain to force a reassessment of the threat and may prompt a more aggressive strategy against the Islamic State, also known variously as ISIS or Daesh. Obama met with national security aides Saturday before his scheduled departure for Antalya, Turkey, where he was to consult with other world leaders in a Group of 20 summit meeting now sure to be dominated by discussion of the Paris attacks.
“ISIS is absolutely a threat beyond the region,” said Frances Fragos Townsend, the top White House counterterrorism adviser under President George W. Bush. “We must not continue to assume that ISIS is merely an away threat. It clearly has international ambitions beyond its self-proclaimed caliphate.”
The situation was already complex enough, with varied players with separate interests involved in the war.
Iran is fighting the Islamic State, but is hardly an ally of the United States. Russia says it is fighting the Islamic State as well, but mainly seems to be trying to bolster the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad, who Obama has said must step down.
A change of approach?
To the extent that the United States has viewed the terrorist group as a regional problem that can be contained, the debate will now be transformed. Obama may have to rethink the lines of alliances and the contours of the war he has been waging.
“Truthfully, I can’t imagine how it doesn’t change their approach,” said Michael E. Leiter, who was the director of the National Counterterrorism Center under Bush and Obama. “When you give this kind of organization this much freedom of movement and go after it this incrementally, people shouldn’t be surprised by things like the aircraft bombing.”
Matthew G. Olsen, another former director of the counterterrorism center, said the series of major attacks would compel the White House to take additional steps. “All of this raises the stakes for the U.S. and increases pressure on the U.S. and the West to respond more aggressively,” he said.
Escalating action against the Islamic State carries its own risks. The Russian airliner was attacked after Moscow intervened in Syria. And the Islamic State has warned it would step up strikes against those countries that have joined the U.S.-led coalition fighting the group in Iraq and Syria.
“The operational tempo is increasing on both sides,” Olsen said. “We’re increasing our attacks in Syria and Iraq, and ISIS is increasing their attacks as well.”
Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said the attacks should dispel any illusions about the nature of the Islamic State. “It will add another sense of urgency to defeating” it, he said, “and that will be very hard to do without eliminating its sanctuary. If this doesn’t create in the world a fierce determination to rid ourselves of this scourge, I don’t know what will.”
The Paris attacks will inevitably raise the question of whether to escalate U.S. and Western military operations in Syria and Iraq. Obama has authorized airstrikes and sent small teams of Special Operations forces acting as advisers to aid Iraqi military units, Syrian rebels and Kurdish fighters on the ground. But he has strongly resisted a more extensive involvement of U.S. ground troops to avoid repeating what he sees as the mistakes of the Iraq war.
An ‘inconvenient truth’
In Obama’s view, the United States made things worse after Sept. 11 by invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein, stoking a wider anti-American militant movement that ultimately led to the rise of the Islamic State. While critics fault him for pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq in 2011, leaving a vacuum, he has long believed that a greater involvement by the United States would only entangle it in another quagmire without successfully resolving the conflict.
Townsend and others said that the White House had been too reluctant to acknowledge an “inconvenient truth” – that the Islamic State threat extends beyond the Middle East and could easily lead to a Paris-style attack in the United States.
If there were doubts about that before, U.S. agencies on Saturday were busy trying to make sure that that was not the case, scouring passenger manifests on airliners bound for the United States and searching surveillance resources for chatter about plots.
Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry made it clear in statements after the Paris attacks that the United States would stand firm against terrorism, whatever its source. In Vienna, where Kerry was trying to negotiate a settlement of the Syrian civil war that helped give rise to the Islamic State, he said the Paris attacks would “stiffen our resolve” to fight back.
“You’re going to see several things,” said Steven Simon, a former Middle East adviser to Obama. “Tighter border controls, more intensive surveillance in the U.S. and more outreach to local communities in the hope that extremists will be fingered by their friends and family. And a tightening of already intimate cooperation with European intelligence agencies.”
Juan Carlos Zarate, a former counterterrorism adviser to Bush, said the spreading threat would require action on multiple fronts. “In the wake of the Paris, Beirut and Sinai attacks, the U.S. government and allies may not realize that there may not be time to contain this threat – and instead need to be much more aggressive in disrupting terrorists’ hold on territory, resources and the minds of Muslim youth.”
A new narrative
The Paris attacks, coming so soon after the deadly shootings at Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical newspaper, in January will force U.S. analysts to review their assumptions about the potential threat at home.
While attacks in places like Mumbai, India, have been highly coordinated, much attention in the United States has focused on the possibility of lone-wolf attackers inspired by, if not directed by, radicals overseas, as manifested by the shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009 or the bombing of the Boston Marathon in 2013.
“The multiple coordinated attacks defy the lone-wolf narrative we had constructed,” said Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary of homeland security under Obama. “The fact this could happen is remarkable, and not in a complimentary way. We can withstand random guys with low-level attacks and minimal consequences. This means the ‘war’ we thought we had put to rest has resurfaced.”
Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown, said it was never an either-or choice between lone wolves and foreign attackers. “The emphasis on lone wolves was all part of the wishful thinking that ISIS was purely a local phenomenon that could be contained to Syria and Iraq,” Hoffman said.
Indeed, the initial assumptions on Friday were that the Paris attacks must be the work of al-Qaida, a group that traditionally has had wider reach and aspirations than the Islamic State.
In 2010, Hoffman recalled, Osama bin Laden called on al-Qaida franchises to stage Mumbai-style attacks in European cities, but his order fell on deaf ears because there was no group then capable of such an operation.
Today, the Islamic State seems to have filled that void.
“They wanted to be considered a global terrorist organization,” said John D. Cohen, a Rutgers University professor who was a senior Department of Homeland Security counterterrorism and intelligence official until last year. “If so, they’ll have sent a loud message they are.”