Terror in Paris

by Emile Nakhleh

The several terrorist attacks in Paris yesterday evening and the ensuing barbaric carnage raise a number of troubling questions about the nature of terror and the growing perception that Salafi Islamic radicalism is waging a war on the West. In the absence of real information and credible claims about who ordered these heinous attacks, intelligence and policy analysts should explore all kinds of possibilities and plausible “theories.”

The central question here is whether the probable bombing of the Russian airliner out of Sharm al-Sheikh in Egypt, the two suicide attacks in the Burj al-Barajneh southern suburb of Beirut on Thursday evening, and the Paris attacks are all connected or are, rather, three discrete terrorist events driven by different motives. The two most likely perpetrators of the Paris attacks are the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) or al-Qaeda. IS, however, is the more likely suspect behind the Russian airplane bombing (assuming it’s proven with full confidence) and the Beirut suicide detonations.

The Sinai bombing could be retaliation for Russia’s military operations in Syria in support of Assad. The Beirut bombings are most likely retaliation against Hezbollah for its military involvement in Syria on Assad’s side. The southern Beirut suburb, also known as al-Dahiyah, is a Shia neighborhood and a Hezballah stronghold.


Although IS has claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, It may well have been al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) or al-Qaeda Central behind the half-dozen incidents. First, the sophistication and planning of the multiple operations, which must have taken weeks, if not months, to accomplish, points to al-Qaeda rather than IS because of the former’s global “expertise” in this area. Second, al-Qaeda might be competing with IS for relevance in the global terror business. Al-Qaeda Central has been totally marginalized with its leaders on the run whereas IS has occupied center stage in the radical wing of extremism and terrorism. Al-Qaeda must envy IS for its territorial acquisitions, financial resources, and declaration of the caliphate.

Third, in the past year or so, al-Qaeda regional or franchise groups have expanded their influence and operations in their respective countries. AQAP, for example, has expanded its operations in Yemen, taking advantage of the lack of central authority caused by the Saudi air war against the Houthis to spread its influence over wider areas in Yemen. Over the years, AQAP has forged close relations with Sunni tribes in the Yemeni hinterland, and many of its leaders come from those regions. That was one of the reasons why Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American terrorist mastermind and advocate, was able to function in Yemen for several years before he was killed in a drone strike. Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, has made significant territorial gains in its war against the Assad regime. It has received funding from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other Gulf financiers and has been tolerated by Western countries because of the focus on fighting IS. Al-Qaeda elements also operate in Libya, Somalia, Iraq, and elsewhere.

Beyond IS and al-Qaeda, again in the absence of information, it is also possible that French Muslims conducted the terrorist attacks in Paris in retaliation for their perceived grievances and discrimination, which they have voiced over the years. To acquire knowledge of the different neighborhoods, restaurants, stadiums, and other public buildings and the level of security present in these buildings, plotters would have had to live in France for a long time, to speak the language, and to know the city. Of course, these perpetrators could have acted as a domestic terror cell or a “sleeper” cell of al-Qaeda in France.

The Way Forward

It is difficult to chart a strategy to combat this type of terror when so little is known about the identity and motives of the Paris perpetrators. Regardless of who did it, the different terror organizations share a common goal. They aim to spread fear and terror in Western societies because they believe that the West is waging a war if not on Islam then certainly on IS and its caliphate. Although they differ in their modus operandi, they agree on the goal of fighting the “infidels.” These infidels could be the “far enemy” represented by Western countries or the “near enemy” represented by Muslim regimes engaged in perceived “un-Islamic” behavior. Whereas al-Qaeda has moved from the global to the local, IS seems to be moving from the local to the global. IS expansion, however, has so far been limited to the Arab region, moving from Syria and Iraq into Lebanon and Egypt and potentially Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

If IS is the culprit, the international community should redouble its efforts, together with regional states, to contain the movement in Syria and Iraq. Containment would mean limiting the territorial expansion of IS and restricting its access to financial resources such as oil fields and commerce. Once contained, ISIS would begin to attract fewer jihadists from other countries, and its caliphate would begin to wither. Containing IS would require a new strategy of putting boots on the ground, primarily supplied by regional states. The West would provide logistical support, weapons training, and intelligence.

If al-Qaeda Central or one of its affiliates is behind the Paris bombings, the West should shift its focus on IS and reassess the threat from al-Qaeda. Resources should be made available to fight al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Admittedly, this is a difficult task, especially if al-Qaeda or one of its affiliates is operating in a failed state like Yemen, Libya, Iraq, or Syria—or even in far away Afghanistan or Pakistan.

If French Muslim terrorists conducted the Paris bombings as a form of domestic terrorism, the French government and other European governments will have to reassess the situation and the domestic conditions and grievances of their Muslim minorities. These governments will need to find a way to make their Muslim minorities feel an integral part of these countries and not a separate, alienated minority. French President Francois Hollande has accused the IS of organizing and carrying out the nearly simultaneous attacks, which he describes as “acts of war” waged against French republican and democratic values. He promised a “pitiless” retaliation against IS.

If the Paris bombings signal a comprehensive war that Islamic radicalism is waging against the West, as Hollande has implied, then Western countries should consider the possibility that the world is witnessing a new era of cultural and civilizational conflicts, which are likely to last for decades before they burn themselves out.

Photo: al-Qaeda in the Maghreb

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.



  1. This broad analysis makes endless sense, as far as it goes (and that is quite far). It does not, however, assess possible false-flag operations — I point especially to the Sharm Al-Sheikh airliner takedown, where the Zionists are nearby, very nearby….

    Also, surely his “IS expansion, however, has so far been limited to the Arab region, moving from Syria and Iraq into Lebanon and Egypt and potentially Jordan and Saudi Arabia.” should have been expanded to “…into Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, and potentially….”

    Thanks to Dr. Nakhleh.

  2. Blinded by their obsession of imposing by force a western dictated democracy in Syria and lured by Gulf countries who wanted a settle a personal score with the Syrian leadership, the Western countries have deliberately ignored the growth of extremist Islamism.
    Now they are overwhelmed by the task of destroying what they have allowed to exist.
    The source of terrorism is clearly the Wahhabism that was been allowed to spread in Europe through mosques and Wahhabi clerics. It is fed by the financial support of Gulf countries citizens and blooms very well among the unemployed Moslem youth in large Western cities.
    These are the areas that Europe will have to tackle even if their rich clients, the Gulf countries resist and if Turkey denies serving as a passage for the funds destined to terrorism. It is time for the West to have the courage to face these countries firmly.
    If they don’t stop the spread of Wahhabism now and work to provide job opportunity to their Moslem youth, the Western countries will see an ever growing repetition of these attacks.

  3. The beauty of hindsight is that we can revisit posts in the light of new facts; namely it wasn’t Al-Qaeda involved in Paris, but ISIS and the strategy of ISIS is to use the exodus of four million Syrians to smuggle in cells into as many foreign countries as possible to commit acts of terror. Just today Honduras announced catching five traveling on fake Syrian passports trying to make their way into the U.S. There is no telling how many have already successfully entered the U.S. and EU. What is worth remembering is that price we are paying now for the failure of the Obama administration to enforce its original red line in the sand declaration when Assad first used poison gas years ago. In retrospect, a limited air campaign then and pressure on Iran to stay out of Syria during nuclear talks may be dramatically rewritten the script we are seeing played out now and in the future.

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