PARIS — In terms of terrorist attacks on French territory, this was unprecedented: multiple suicide bombers blowing themselves up late Friday, after launching coordinated massacres in five locations in central Paris and near the Stade de France football stadium on the outskirts of the capital in Saint Denis. The Paris targets included Bataclan, a concert venue where scores of music fans were taken hostage.
French President Francois Hollande said Saturday morning that the ISIS terror group was responsible for the attacks that left at least 120 dead.
Qualified as a "complex" operation for its stage-by-stage implementation, the action was likely modeled on a type of violence made common in recent years in conflict zones like Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria.
Another novelty in this type of attack on French soil is their simultaneous nature. Anti-terror prosecutors say this allowed authorities to swiftly identify the incidents as a large-scale terrorist operation with the possibility of dire consequences. Multiplying targets in this way has the effect of augmenting panic and confusion, while information became more mangled as assailants moved around to sow terror instead of focusing on one point.
In theory, ntelligence services had anticipated such a scenario. "When I headed the Home Intelligence central office, we envisaged such an attack on train stations, sports stadiums or concert halls," says Bernard Squarcini, head of French intelligence service from 2008-2012. "This is no blind act but a complex attack." Squarcini cited the "political context" of the timing, with a global environmental summit — the so-called COP21 — scheduled to begin later this month.
The recent history of attacks on French soil reveals a gradual slide toward this type of assault, now typical in countries bloodied by asymmetrical wars between high-tech powers and opponents with lesser means but a resolve to destroy their own lives while killing as many as possible. It's a trend that has gained momentum since war broke out in Syria in 2011, amid fears in France as elsewhere in Europe that militants fighting there will return to perpetrate terror attacks.
An early warning sign was the close ties between brothers Said and Chérif Kouachi, perpetrators of the Jan. 7 attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, and Amedy Coulibaly who led a lone attack on a kosher supermarket, suggesting prior coordination of plans. Investigations have yet to firmly reach this conclusion, but evidently they had ties. Acting in France between 2010 and early 2015, the Kouachi brothers and their friends in the Buttes-Chaumont "branch" (named after the Paris district they frequented) pursued their radicalization plans, bought weapons and kept in touch with confidantes who had decided to fight with militants in Syria or Tunisia.
A year earlier, on May 24 2014, Mehdi Nemmouche, who had returned from Syria via Thailand and Germany, murdered four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. He acted alone and had similarities to Mohammed Merah, perpetrator of the killings in Toulouse and Montauban in March 2012. The former had been a prison officer for ISIS in Syria, and the latter had sought his jihadist thrills in Afghanistan and tribal areas of Pakistan. Their evolution did not occur without encouragements and support from Islamic radicals around them, though their attacks were personal initiatives.
Several attacks on the Paris public transportation system in the summers of 1995 and 1996 displayed a different kind of protocol with its own kind of signature. The same places attacked at a busy hour, with gas canisters and nails. That campaign was ordered by captains of the Algerian Islamic Armed Group linked to small-time operatives in and around the central French city of Lyon.
Those attacks were restricted to particular networks known to the intelligence services, and ended when the cells were dismantled. They lack the massive scale of the waves of violence sweeping Syria, which seem to have overwhelmed the counter-terrorist authorities and brought their exceptional brutality to strike at the heart of France.