The world has witnessed once again a horrific terrorist attack on European soil. It comes as the third attack in France so far this year, having been preceded by the bloody Charlie Hebdo office and Kosher supermarket attack in January and the Paris-bound train attack in August. That attack, in which no one died, was thwarted as it got underway by three American tourists who took matters into their own hands and subdued the assailant.
While government officials and intelligence personnel put together the sequence of events leading up to and including the November 13 attacks, we note for our part that the assailants were quite sophisticated and made use of heavy weaponry as well as suicide vests or belts and possibly had access to a rocket launcher. It is also noteworthy that the group, composed of at least eight men with other co conspirators, incuding women identified after the fact, exhibited sound operational security and tactics. Security measures included the use of “dark web” communications, target casing, throw-away phones and abandoned vehicles. The entire operation was likely highly compartmentalized.
Regarding tactics, the high powered weaponry and suicide vests, together with multiple operational teams spread out through the city, virtually guaranteed the group would meet its objective of causing great loss of life and instilling a real sense of fear among the population.
Whether the Paris terrorists’ use of such weapons, security and tactics is a one-off event or is a harbinger of operational methodolgy for future attacks is not known at this time. However, it would not be surprising or unusual for aspiring terrorists to adopt “tried and true” methodologies to heighten their chances of “success”. Success of course, in the sick mind of a terrorist, equates to more carnage, victims and bloodshed.
Of the eight known assailants that killed at least 130 people on the evening of November 13, those that made their way into the Bataclan venue sprayed hundreds of rounds indiscriminantly and subsequently detonated suicide vests Another assailant was stopped just outside the Stade de France and detonated his explosives jacket, killing himself immediately. An explosives vest was also used by an as yet unidentified person when confronted by French police during the raids in the Saint Denis suburb in the north of Paris on November 18.
The assembly and use of explosives vests is complex and meticulous, according to sources. Their use shows a level of expertise not commonly seen outside of the Middle East. The preparation and distribution of at least six of them in Paris required painstaking planning and significant time.
“A suicide vest requires a munitions specialist. To make a reliable and effective explosive is not something anyone can do”, said a former French intelligence official to Agence France Presse.
An inexperienced weapons or explosives handler would have a hard time creating an explosive vest that would be stable enough for a person to wear. It must not detonate by accident and it must also be concealable, added the intel source.
The use of at least half a dozen vests suggests that the munitions specialist is still alive and at large. The specialist possesses a great deal of technical skill which is not easily replaceable. He is likely considered to be too valuable to sacrifice in a suicide bombing. The unstable explosive triacetone triperoxide (TATP) was the explosive used in the attacks and in the Saint Denis raid, a fact that suggests the devices were created in France and were not transported a great distance.
The high-powered Kalashnikov was also the rifle of choice in last week’s carnage and we note that it was also used in the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January. This does not mean there were operational links between the terrorists who perpetrated Charlie Hebdo and those who created a virtual war zone in Paris last week. In fact, none has been confirmed. It does mean that French gun laws-among the toughest in Europe-are ineffective at least in part. The lack of border controls within the Schengen area and the widespread availability of weapons left over from the Balkan wars in southeastern Europe facilitate arms trafficking and availability on the continent. Organized crime elements have long had access to such weapons and now it appears that terrorists do as well.
The Paris attacks are sophisticated also for their spectacular nature, which could not have been achieved without a great deal of planning, operational security and compartmentalization of information. There were at least five crime scenes in Paris: Bataclan, Stade de France, Le Carillon, Le Comptoir Voltaire and Le Petit Cambodge. Terrorists achieved their objective at four but were refused entry into the stadium. The simultaneous execution of these attacks required a great deal of planning. After the attacks, they disposed of a cell phone-later recovered by investigators-and dumped a car on the outskirts of Paris. Both the phone and the car have provided extensive leads, but that is all after the fact now-reactive mode.
Operational security during the planning stage seems to have been tight. Neither French nor other intelligence or police services detected the attacks and thus failed to neutralize an active cell of extremists. That necessarily means that the perpetrators were not talking, emailing or meeting with a great deal of frequency.
In spite of the terrorists’ security consciousness, one cannot overlook the missed signals, disjointed intelligence and “failure to connect the dots” that seem to have beset European services leading up to the attacks. Ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud, killed in the St. Denis raid, slipped back into Europe from Syria undetected even though he was wanted by Belgian authorities. Then there’s Ismail Omar Mostefai, the Bataclan suicide bomber. He is suspected of travelling to and from Syria in 2013 and 2014. Turkish authorities notified the French in December of 2014 and again last June about his suspected travels, for which he made use of his French passport. The French never responded, according to a source in Turkish law enforcement.
Finally, it appears they kept their plans to themselves. Talkative terrorists can face exposure through their misplaced trust. Terrorists and criminals often confide in an apparent friend only to find out later that he or she was secretly informing police of the group’s intentions and activities. With so many people involved in these attacks, it is extraordinary that no one gave it up-even unwittingly-before execution. There were clear signs, but much like during the months before the 09/11 attacks in the US, the intelligence was not properly exploited.
Perhaps the most significant operational advantage that the terrorists had in this case was their freedom of movement throughout the Schengen area. Let us remember that so far, all of the identified attackers were either French or Belgian citizens. They therefore travelled on EU passports and did not face customs or immigration controls within the block. They would however be required to produce their passports upon reentry into Schengen, such as overland from Turkey or from a point in the Middle East via a scheduled airline flight. System failures at all levels contributed to the worst act of violence in France since World War II.
There are too many “take aways” to enumerate here and we are still in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. However, it is safe to say that the attacks will cause a rethinking-and possibly retooling-of the European unity and integration model. They will also inevitably force police and intelligence agencies on both sides of the Atlantic to adjust their tactics in order to keep up with and anticipate terrorists’ use of new technologies and weaponry. As they do, we can expect a lively legal debate on civil liberties and freedom of movement and association.
Seems like 09/11 all over.