French police secure the area as shots are exchanged in St. Denis, France, near Paris, November 18, 2015 during an operation to catch fugitives from Friday night’s deadly attacks in the French capital. © Benoit Tessier/Reuters
It isn’t unusual to observe a progression from grief, to outrage, to retaliation after events like those that took place in Paris on November 13th, but it has been interesting to see how quick the escalation from those attacks to increasing the volatile stakes in Syria with air strikes on Islamic militants has taken place. It can safely be assumed that what we have come to know as ISIS now has ‘sleeper cells’ – if indeed the term is still relevant in the new paradigm – that can be found in all major European countries, along with the US, Canada and even Australia – yet this particular attack was carried out in France, further adding to its very recent list of vicious militant atrocities against its civilians.
In a country where national security and intelligence agencies are generally known for their competence, usually working in close cooperation with their NATO allies, it is a staggering prospect to conclude that the French security forces could have missed the preparations for such a carefully planned and well organised attack coordinated across no less than six targets simultaneously, especially given the recent increase in surveillance and powers of detention given to their police and intelligence establishments. However, now that the understandable yet often misguided rage provoked in the populations of France and other Western nations by the terrorist attacks in Paris has begun to simmer down, different analysts and intelligence agencies are now starting to try and establish why that city in particular was selected as the target for these attacks.
This attack was also carried out differently from previous terrorist attacks by ISIS, moving from cars packed with explosives and suicide bombers to intimidate its rivals in the Levant to Paris where we witnessed hostage-taking and raging urban gun battles – more like the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in January – a very different modus operandi for the Middle Eastern group. Its organisers also may have been familiar with the details of the Dubrovka Theater siege in Moscow in 2002. Someone seems to have invested a lot of resources into these terrorists, perhaps in militant training camps in Turkey, Jordan, Syria or even still in Iraq.
Shi’ite fighters launch a rocket during clashes with Islamic State militants on the outskirts of al-Alam March 8, 2015. © Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters
A common response from commentators and analysts after events such as the Paris attacks is to pose the question of cui bono. Yet to find an answer it is not enough to simply calculate who benefits from the attack, it is also critical to establish which elements of a foreign nature had a conflict of interests with Paris. It is ultimately irrelevant which terrorist group was tasked with the mission of terrorising the French Republic – be it ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, or some other form of Salafist radical movement. Often the case when those who carry out terrorist attacks remain ignorant of the fact of who was planning and sponsoring them. Moreover, what was witnessed in Paris on Friday was not a regular attack, but a carefully prepared operation where terrorists were acting simultaneously across different targets, far different from ‘lone wolf’ acts seen in other Western nations. The perception of a ‘new phase’ or increase in the capability of groups like ISIS claiming responsibility is more important and carries more weight than the unlikely reality of such a surge from a single terror group.
The assessment is that a similar attack in Germany would not be possible, where the security system is much tougher and more effective, whereas if terror groups targeted for example Spain or Italy the attack would not have the same impact, since those nations are not permanent members of the UN Security Council.
The legally dubious and militarily indecisive ‘retaliation’ strikes the French Air Force carried out against ISIS positions, striking a total of 20 targets in the Syrian city of Raqqa, testify to the fact that France has so far only assumed who actually organised the Paris massacre, not to mention the dangerously reactionary nature of such strikes and the effect on the already tense situation in the air above Syria. Nowhere near enough time has elapsed to perform a full investigation to uncover exactly the foreign source of the attacks to justify the French Air Force dropping more ordnance in Syria where Russia along with Assad’s forces actually have ISIS on the back foot.
© AP Photo/ French Army
Under the pretext of fighting against terrorism, the United States and its allies militarily intervened into the sovereignty of Syria without the approval from the legitimate government of Bashar al-Assad and without receiving an appropriate UN mandate. It should be noted that out of all the US-led coalition forces operating in Syria, France has previously been leading in the bombing of oil infrastructure facilities occupied by ISIS in Syrian territories as part of the Western coalition flying air strikes over Syrian airspace, a fact openly admitted by the French government. These important facilities have been the most critical assets of ISIS forces, providing the group with virtually unlimited funding, while those Middle-Eastern states or state-supported elements that have been buying oil from terrorists continue receiving huge savings from the black market trade. The Islamic State has been selling crude oil at a price at least half that which can be found at international markets, creating a huge network of smugglers operating in neighbouring countries interested in the preservation of their activities, a multi-billion dollar illicit Mid-East oil industry. According to some analysts, stolen oil has provided ISIS with up to 2 billion dollars a year in profits so far, with cross-border smuggling operations receiving just as much. It has also – not surprisingly – been reported that some smugglers are even selling cheap oil to the Syrian army and Iranian troops deployed in Syria, who are in turn fighting ISIS on a daily basis.
It should also be taken into consideration that this attack took place in the very heart of Paris, full of secret service agents in civilian clothes and police officers that are tasked with ensuring the safety of tourists. France relies heavily on its tourism industry, which accounts four up to 7% of GDP. It is also a nation with large Arab and African Islamic communities cannot be carried out without the involvement of foreign intelligence agencies. Any terrorist group that would try to infiltrate France under the guise of Syrian refugees to prepare such an attack on its own would surely be uncovered in short matter of time, given the wide communication and coordination required for this incident. The same thing could be said about the terrorist attack on the Russian Airbus over the Sinai.
For France, the foreign state with the keenest interest in preserving the status quo is Turkey, due to the fact that it allows the majority of the stolen oil to be transported across its territory, while Jordan also enjoys a considerably smaller share of the profits from this business. Media sources have indicated that smugglers are connected with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and a cartel of Turkish businesses. These activities are somewhat common for Ankara, since it used to smuggle Iraqi oil when Saddam Hussein’s regime faced UN sanctions. Turks and Kurds alike – especially the Kurdistan Democratic Party – were already profiting from transporting Iraqi oil from Dohuk across Turkish territory, bringing a flood of heavy-duty trucks with hidden tanks filled with diesel fuel from refineries in Mosul, Kirkuk and Baiji. This resulted in signs for ‘diesel fuel from Iraq’ appearing along most Turkish highways, where residents could buy fuel at half-price. Smuggling was carried out by merchant tanker owners as well – transporting oil and fuels from illegal refineries in Shatt al-Arab, across the Persian Gulf to the United Arab Emirates.
This raises the possibility that some elements of foreign state apparatus have decided to target France over its policies. Turkey is one suspect, however unlikely as it would present a high political risk for Erdogan, and Ankara’s secret services are not nearly as competent as other possible states. Another possible player – Qatar, an incredibly rich gulf state with efficient enough security forces trained by American, British and French experts and is still closely associated with the most effective intelligence service in the Middle East – the British MI6. Qatar has also been providing extensive amounts of financial support to ISIL and Jabhat Al-Nusra. Doha has been frustrated with the indecisiveness of the French government in the fight against the Syrian regime, despite formerly taking a leading role in the fight against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. After being struck by the terrorist attack in Algeria in 2013 and the need to carry out a military operation in Mali against the local branch of al-Qaeda, Paris officially declared that its main priority in the efforts to combat international terrorism would lie in the region of the Maghreb and the Sahara Sahel – in other words, in the areas where it used to maintain colonies. Roughly 95% of the immigrants in France originate from these regions, primarily from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Representatives of those states are numerous amongst ISIS ranks, with many holding French passports.
French relations with Qatar were also strained by Paris’ reluctance to apply pressure on Lebanon and lack of opposition to a deal with Iran on its nuclear program.
There are certain factors that inevitably bring agencies like the British MI6 into consideration. A historical mistrust exists between England and France, British jealousy of to the strong Franco-German axis within the EU, and a growing desire within the UK government to withdraw from the EU, due to its financial and immigration problems. Border policies are seen by Whitehall as too liberal in the EU, which leads to flows of refugees from the Middle East reaching Britain through France. Should Britain leave the EU it will be able to dramatically tighten border controls, while weakening the united Europe as a whole. In addition, MI6 involvement in such attack would correspond well with the aspirations of the UK’s primary strategic partner – the United States, which perceives a strong united Europe as a growing rival. The leaders of the EU – namely France and Germany – have also started drifting towards Russia’s position on the crisis in Ukraine, which challenges Washington’s position in that conflict.
While it may be improbable that state actors in the UK would be directly organising such attacks, it does not in theory prevent British security services from assisting a friendly state, such as Qatar, to facilitate terrorist operations that would progress shared goals in Syria and elsewhere in the region.
It is unlikely that any investigation into the terrorist attacks in Paris will provide answers as to which entities facilitated the alleged terror cell to establish, organise, coordinate and operate so effectively. However, what is important is that they have gone some way already to achieving the goals of terrorism – Europe is further alarmed and weakened, and there is an acceleration of the gradual disintegration of the Union. European dependence on the United States has also sharply increased in the aftermath of the attack – therefore one cannot expect the leading EU countries including France and Germany, to change their positions over Russia and the Middle East in the foreseeable future.