The Islamic State’s deadly terrorist attacks in Paris have exposed cracks in Western intelligence efforts and cast doubt on the underlying premises behind the U.S.-led war against the extremist group.
The attacks in France, which left at least 132 dead, have recast how the United States and its European partners view the group and could prompt a new urgency in the faltering military campaign against the extremists.
In a possible sign of a more aggressive approach, France — which declared the Paris attacks an “act of war” — sent warplanes on Sunday to strike at the Islamic State’s headquarters in the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa as part of what French officials described as a major bombardment. The aircraft hit a command center, an ammunition depot, and a training camp in Raqqa, with 20 bombs dropped from at least 10 fighter jets, the French Defense Ministry said.
The air raids came after Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian spoke to Pentagon chief Ash Carter twice over the weekend about military operations in Syria and Iraq. Along with assisting French forces in conducting expanded airstrikes, the United States was looking “for additional ways to share intelligence” with France, a Pentagon official told Foreign Policy.
Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor at the White House, indicated a ramped-up air campaign was in the offing. He told NBC’s Meet the Press, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State, that “in the coming days and weeks, working with the French, we’ll be able to intensify our strikes against ISIL in both Syria and Iraq to make clear that there’s no safe haven for these terrorists.”
Such assurances weren’t enough for many American lawmakers, including prominent members of President Barack Obama’s own party, who said Washington needed to act far more aggressively to confront the Islamic State, which remains entrenched in much of the territory it seized last year.
The bloodshed in Paris sparked fresh criticism on Sunday, with a prominent Democratic lawmaker demanding a more aggressive campaign to turn the tide against the Islamic State.
“I think the implications are [that] this is not just an intelligence failure,” Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told ABC’s This Week. “It’s a failure also of a coalition campaign because we have allowed ISIS to have sanctuary in Syria and Iraq with too much time to plan and plot, too [many] resources to be directed against us.”
Unless that dynamic changed, Schiff added, “we can expect more attacks like this.”
Similar debates have erupted in Belgium and France, where intelligence officials are already facing tough questions about why they were unable to detect or prevent an attack that may have been planned, at least in part, within Europe. After the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo came under deadly assault in January, French authorities adopted new surveillance measures to try to track suspected militants and planned to expand counterterrorism units, but officials acknowledge that security services are struggling to keep track of so many suspects.
As intelligence and law enforcement agencies came under scrutiny, the Paris attacks also raised fresh questions about the nature of the threat posed by the Islamic State and the U.S.-led strategy designed to defeat it.
Since the Islamic State first grabbed headlines by seizing cities in Iraq and Syria in 2014, the United States tended to play down the group’s ability and intent to carry out terrorist attacks abroad, suggesting that it did not yet have the means to conduct mass casualty assaults like al Qaeda.
In an interview just one day before the attacks, Obama defended the coalition’s air war against the Islamic State, saying the campaign had succeeded in halting the group’s advance and that the Islamic State had been “contained.”
But that belief — that the Islamic State was a local threat that could be fenced off in Iraq and Syria — has been increasingly called into question even before the carnage in Paris.
In the space of a few weeks, the Islamic State staged a massive double bombing in Lebanon that left 43 dead, claimed credit for bringing down a Russian passenger jet over Egypt with 224 people on board, and carried out the killings in the heart of Paris on Friday — the most lethal terrorist attack in Europe since the Madrid bombings of 2004.
“The hope that this was an entirely local phenomenon, that was always a fundamental misreading of ISIL,” said Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University.
The Islamic State, which originated as an offshoot of al Qaeda, has “an identical ideology” to it, and there was no reason to think it would not try to stage its own high-profile operations, Hoffman told FP.
Exploiting its self-declared caliphate, which stretches from eastern Syria to western and northern Iraq, and has provided a source of oil smuggling revenue and a propaganda vehicle, the Islamic State set out to build a global network, he said.
“Once it did that, it could tap into terrorist organizations elsewhere with different skill sets,” Hoffman told FP.
Since the 9/11 attacks, al Qaeda repeatedly tried but failed to bring down a commercial airliner. But Western intelligence agencies now suspect the Islamic State was likely behind the downing of the Russian Metrojet charter plane over the Sinai Peninsula on Oct. 31.
While the Islamic State has grown and morphed, the Obama administration’s war strategy has remained largely unchanged and come under fire in Washington by critics from both parties.
In a statement on Saturday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Islamic State had to be confronted head on before the danger intensified.
“This growing threat is a failure of U.S. foreign policy, and if the administration does not get more serious about combatting it, our nation and our people will pay a grave price,” McCain said.
The U.S. administration has made some incremental changes in its campaign in recent weeks, opting for the first time to send special operations forces into Syria to help opposition fighters move against Islamic State supply routes around Raqqa. And U.S. air power helped Kurdish forces in recent days push the militants out of the northern town of Sinjar in Iraq, a setback that could jeopardize the Islamic State’s hold on the city of Mosul.
But it remains unclear whether the wave of terrorist attacks will trigger a sweeping change in strategy that could see the United States and its NATO allies mount a larger-scale air war or deploy significant numbers of troops in direct combat — instead of the current advisory role.
European and U.S. security services apparently failed to detect signs in advance of the well-organized plot in France that involved three teams of terrorists armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles and suicide bomb belts.
As European authorities launched a manhunt for one of the attackers who was still at large, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the assailants had “prepared abroad and had mobilized a team of participants located on Belgian territory, and who may have benefited — the investigation will tell us more — from complicity in France.”
Before the attacks, Western officials had expressed growing alarm about the flow of thousands of recruits from European states flocking to Syria and Iraq to join up with the Islamic State. And counterterrorism officials had pointed to the difficulties in tracing communications between tech-savvy militants who might try to stage an attack upon their return.
In a testimony in October, the director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, Nick Rasmussen, warned lawmakers about “the increasing ability of terrorist actors to communicate with each other outside our reach.”
Rasmussen blamed the leaks about classified eavesdropping methods from former security contractor Edward Snowden, as well as the militants’ “agile” use of new software, apps, or other tools that can circumvent surveillance.
French officials believed the plot was hatched by a jihadi cell in the Molenbeek suburb of Brussels, a district long known as a hotbed for radical Islamists. Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon on Saturday castigated local and regional authorities for failing to ferret out the extremists and vowed a “root and branch” overhaul of the local officials in charge.
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