Insights on the Paris Terror Attacks from RAND Experts


French Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem (L), French President Francois Hollande (C), French Prime Minister Manuel Valls (R), and students observe a moment of silence at the Sorbonne University, Paris, France, November 16, 2015

French Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem (L), French President Francois Hollande (C), French Prime Minister Manuel Valls (R), and students observe a moment of silence at the Sorbonne University, Paris, France, November 16, 2015

Photo by Guillaume Horcajuelo/Pool/Reuters

November 17, 2015

A wave of coordinated terror attacks across Paris last Friday left 129 dead and more than 350 others wounded. French President Francois Hollande called the assault “an act of war” and has intensified airstrikes in Raqqa, Syria, an ISIS stronghold.

The extremist group has claimed responsibility for the bloodshed, as well as the downing of a Russian passenger jet last month — which Moscow confirmed today was a bombing — and a double suicide attack in Lebanon that killed 43 people one day before the rampage in Paris.

RAND experts have weighed in on what the tragedy means for France, the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, the global refugee crisis, and more.

Brian Michael Jenkins

On Big Questions Facing France

“French authorities have several immediate concerns. Experienced observers are skeptical that such a small band of assailants could have carried out such an ambitious mission on their own. A detailed examination of the shootings and bomb explosions may show how it was done, but it seems clear the killers must have had some confederates. That would mean some terrorists are still at large.”

(via CNN)

On the Number of Suspects

“French authorities are being overwhelmed by the number of suspected extremists. … Intelligence services do not have the resources to keep all of them under surveillance. Choices have to be made. But dangerousness is difficult to predict.”

(via FiveThirtyEight)

On the Social Divide in Europe

“The fact that authorities in France and other countries in Europe are dealing with such huge numbers of potentially dangerous individuals reflects broader societal problems. It indicates the presence of alienated, self-isolating communities where the violent ideologies emanating from the Middle East find resonance and recruits. Some are likely to be attracted by ISIS's line that this is the beginning of the end-of-time showdown between believers and infidels. The Paris attacks will only serve to deepen this social divide.”

(via Slate)

Seth G. Jones

On What the Fight Against ISIL Requires — Beyond Military Efforts

ISIL has been able to establish a foothold largely because of political and governance reasons, not military ones. In Iraq, large numbers of Sunnis remain disaffected with a government that is still perceived as pro-Shi'a and pro-Iranian, and Iraqi security forces are fairly weak. In Syria, much of the Sunni population is also disaffected with the Assad government, and Syrian forces have failed to hold significant chunks of their territory. Consequently, success against ISIL in both countries will require dealing with the underlying political and governance grievances that have allowed ISIL to establish a foothold, not just military operations.

(via National Public Radio)

On Future ISIL Violence

As ISIS faces a stepped-up air and ground campaign in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, there is a good chance the group will lose more territory in Iraq and Syria. But watch out if it does. If history is any guide, ISIS will resort to more terrorist attacks in the West as it loses ground, potentially making it a more dangerous and unpredictable enemy during its decline.

(via Slate)

Christopher Chivvis

On Whether France Would Turn to NATO for Assistance

“If the U.S. were to insist on going the NATO route, France might decide it wants to do the same. It's too early to say if that's what's going to happen,” he said.

Working through NATO would provide the international agency's command-and-control structure for the operation and would also lend “political legitimacy” that a coalition wouldn't, though NATO can sometimes move slower than a coalition, Chivvis said.

(via Washington Examiner)

On French Military Capabilities

“France can be one of the most aggressive countries in the world when it comes to striking terrorist groups overseas,” Chivvis said via email Saturday.

“President Hollande has considerable capability at his disposal, including advanced airpower, highly trained special forces, and land and naval assets. France needs support of NATO allies and especially the United States to employ these capabilities to their fullest, however.”

(via CNN)

On Twitter

Michael D. Rich

On Twitter

Ines von Behr

On Twitter

Colin P. Clarke

On the Difference Between This and the Boston Marathon Attacks

What sets Friday's attacks in Paris apart from those like the Boston Marathon bombing is the apparent level of planning and sophistication. “To have seven of the eight vests actually detonate tells me that you've got somebody who's really skilled and has got the time and knowledge to spend putting these things together. These guys didn't each build their own vests. Someone built these things. And he could very well still be at large in Paris, with the capability to do this for others.”

(via Politico)

On the Capabilities of ISIS

“On the one hand, ISIS is clearly feeling the heat from a more aggressive air campaign targeting its infrastructure in Syria, however, it takes a certain degree of confidence and competence to even attempt, much less succeed, with such a brazen terrorist attack on European soil. The fact that suicide attacks were part of it, that multiple locations were selected, indicates to me a serious degree of discipline, training, and logistical capability. But thinking of ISIS in terms of home vs. away victories or setbacks might not be useful. For example, ISIS can reach anywhere in the world to recruit and inspire through social media.”

(via Vocativ)

On Twitter

Stephanie Pezard

On Threats in France

“I wouldn't exactly call it [France] a hotbed of terrorism but after the January 2015 attacks on the Charlie Hebdo team and the additional attack on the kosher supermarket that followed, we all knew these types of attacks are possible, and there have been in recent months announcements by ISIS that France was one of their number one targets. These types of attacks were very much feared and I think that a lot of people are not surprised at what has happened, but it was not expected on this scale. There were definitely some very clear threats against France for several months.”

(via KCBS-AM)

On Arms Procurement by ISIS

“These types of heavy weapons have unfortunately become, I wouldn't say widely available, but definitely available to criminal gangs. There are a number of trafficking routes, many from Eastern Europe, that have been filling the needs of criminal gangs in Western Europe. So criminal gangs have had access to these types of firearms. They have been used in attacks against commercial targets, for instance banks, but it was just a matter of time before they would be used in the type of terrorist attack that took place in Paris.”

On Twitter

S. Rebecca Zimmerman

On the Role of Diplomacy

“In the wake of these bombings, the U.S., along with Russia and a number of other allies, concluded a transition plan for Syria that brings the Assad regime to the table with opposition groups. If the plan can be adhered to — and that's a big if — this could play an important role in simplifying the conflict in Syria in a way that will allow for more decisive action against ISIL.”

On ISIL Itself

“Up until the minute the attacks began, most people would have said it was a good week in the fight against ISIL: Airstrikes had taken out several key leaders, and Kurdish fighters took back strategic territory. In part, this highlights the ease with which ISIL can shift from centralized to decentralized operations. While the Paris attacks heighten our interest in countering core elements of ISIL, they should also serve as a reminder that the U.S. should keep one eye on ISIL's decentralized, peripheral affiliates.”

On Twitter

Becca Wasser

On Twitter

Daniel M. Gerstein

On U.S. Preparedness

“The Islamic State group now has operational cells in over a dozen countries and about three dozen jihadist groups across at least 18 nations have pledged support or allegiance to the group. In a very short period of time, the Islamic State group has developed unprecedented reach and demonstrated a proclivity for employing extreme violence tactics to strike at the very heart of civilized societies.

“Given its strategy, it seems only a matter of time before these extremists might attempt an attack here in the United States. The irony is that the very rights that Americans hold so dear — liberty, privacy, freedom — place it at greater risk. So what should America do to prepare?

“A key will be to develop strategies for intervening at all possible points to reduce the chance of an attack, address the causes of radicalization and tear down the terrorist narrative.

“Finally, in thinking about the events of the past couple of weeks and the rise of the Islamic State group, perhaps the most important thing Americans can do is to continue to live their lives. Increased vigilance is prudent, but changing American society would mean that the forces of radicalization have prevailed, an unthinkable outcome.”

(via U.S. News & World Report)

Jonah Blank

On How the U.S. and Allies Will React

“The Paris attacks were more sophisticated and better coordinated than any terrorist action perpetrated by ISIS outside of Iraq and Syria. This represents a serious escalation of the group's threat to the international community.

“Japan has already lost at least two victims to ISIS: Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa, earlier this year. The Paris attacks show that no nation is safe — the victims included innocent civilians from at least 15 nations, and France is only one among many countries potentially targeted by ISIS. Japan has not been a major player in the Syrian civil war and is unlikely to take a leading military role. It may, however, apply quiet economic and diplomatic pressure to states like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf emirates: The only way to end the threat of ISIS is for the Sunni neighbors of Syria and Iraq to step to the forefront of the struggle.

“The U.S. may respond to the Paris attack with increased airstrikes and Special Operations action against ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq, increased support for anti-ISIS fighters within these countries, and increased pressure on Sunni states in the Middle East to turn more forcefully against ISIS. There is very little chance, however, of any large-scale ground action.”

(via Nikkei News)

On Twitter

Michael Shurkin

On Possible French Responses

“French President Francois Hollande's recent call to arms in response to the terrorist attacks in Paris on Nov. 13 raises questions about what precisely France can do, and whether or not a military response would be appropriate. France in fact is already involved in the fight against ISIS, so really the question is what more could or should France do. In any case, one thing that is certain is that Hollande's words are not empty. France will act.

“Whatever France does, moreover, it will probably do things differently from what the United States would do. There is a French way of war that is worthy of respect and perhaps even emulation … the French have a number of options, some big, some small. Whatever they choose to do, they are likely to act in a measured way and think first. They might act quietly. They might not succeed. One thing is certain: If the French are determined to hurt someone, they will.”

(via Politico)

On Twitter

Linda Robinson

On What We Do and Don't Know About ISIS

“Two important features of ISIL have been insufficiently appreciated or understood. First, its demonstrated agility: Throughout this conflict, when hit in one place, it launches an attack in another. We have seen it repeatedly, in Tikrit/Ramadi, Sinjar/Lebanon, Syria/Sharm el Sheikh, and now in France as we start to put the squeeze on Raqqa.

“The second feature is its resilience: Though the counter-ISIL effort has been fairly low-tempo until this fall — and thus may not have stressed the organization — it nonetheless has a competence, depth, and organization that was underestimated for its first year.

“What we don't still don't know or fully appreciate is the nature of ISIL's expansion and the related question of operational control versus affiliate autonomy. This may be a genuine movement that does not rely on centralized control which will make it harder to attack and will require numerous fronts.”

Angel Rabasa

On the Terrorists' Tactics

“There are some close parallels between the attacks in Paris and the attacks in Mumbai in 2008. The Paris attacks were the first mass-casualty terrorist incident in Europe in over a decade — but unlike in Madrid and London, the Paris attacks were not primarily bombings. They were coordinated assaults on soft targets by multiple squads, as in Mumbai. This could be a new tactic that terrorists turn to as a means of paralyzing a whole city.”

On Similarities to the 2008 Mumbai Attack

“Both the Mumbai attacks of 2008 and Friday's Paris attacks involved multiple, coordinated attacks by separate squads of individuals against “soft targets,” such as restaurants, bars, a railway station, and a Jewish community center in Mumbai, and a theater, a restaurant, and a bar in Paris. Both also aimed to inflict the highest number of casualties.”

(via LA Daily News)

Howard J. Shatz

On Where ISIS Gets Its Money

“ISIS also benefits from the sale of antiquities from sites it loots. We're really talking about small items, so tablets or seals. You can put those in your pocket, you can put them in a suitcase. Middlemen can get the goods to private buyers or lower-tier auction houses.”

(via Marketplace)

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.