By Allah, we will take revenge!
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
The attack by battle-hardened jihadists in the French capital on Friday, November 13, 2015 was not the first time terrorism directed at the residents of Paris had occurred. Yet, even in a large metropolis that has experienced urban terrorism with North African and Middle East connections many times before, there was an unprecedented ruthless efficiency in the barbarism unleashed on undefended soft targets and the resulting mass carnage. In its impact, the attack on Paris will likely be compared to 9/11 in the United States and 7/7 in London.
The Islamic State, aka ISIS, has taken credit for the mass killings in the French capital. Should the claim by ISIS be proven accurate, it marks a grave--but not unpredicted--escalation in the global jihad being waged by the Islamic State against an enemy it has defined as essentially the entire world that lies outside the boundaries of the nascent caliphate. In the summer of 2014, shortly after the armies of the Islamic State had begun their territorial grab in Iraq and conquered Mosul, the second largest city in that war-torn country, the self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, delivered a sermon in that town's Great Al-Nuri Mosque. The essence of his proclamation was that the formation of the caliphate was not an end in itself, but a means to an end, which he stated without a trace of ambiguity was perpetual jihad--holy war-- against the non-Islamic world. His prose was stark and uncompromising, and for those who listened, al-Baghdadi made clear his intention of utilizing the ever-expanding Islamic State as a platform for unleashing vengeance upon the non-Islamic world. The appalling slaughter in Paris followed by only two weeks the destruction of a Russian Metrojet airliner over the Sinai desert, which ISIS has proudly claimed responsibility for--and a growing body of expert analysis tends to confirm the connection, which killed 224 passengers and crew. The day before the Paris atrocity, suicide bombs detonated in a largely Shiite neighborhood in Beirut killed 43. Again, the Islamic State identified itself as the force behind the attack.
The French president, Francois Hollande, described the jihadist attack on Paris as an act of war committed by ISIS. For the first time, a Western leader appears to understand that the Islamic State is not a traditional non-state actor engaging in terrorism, but an actual state entity conducting warfare, asymmetrical in character, but with a clear strategic focus. Will President Hollande, along with President Obama, draw the proper conclusions? Unfortunately, the past year and a half since the emergence of the Islamic State as a regional and now global actor does not give rise to optimism. The U.S. president, in particular, has displayed indecisiveness and a lack of clarity in confronting the challenge of the Islamic State.
Obama, however, is not alone. The Russian president, Putin, has been equally lacking in leadership. While boasting that his military intervention in Syria's civil war is for the purpose of fighting ISIS, Putin has been using the Islamic State threat as cover for supporting the Assad dictatorship and its Iranian Shiite allies, in the process facilitating support for the Islamic State by Sunni Muslims in the Arab world, who increasingly look upon ISIS as the only force that can protect them against their perceived enemies, especially Iran and "infidel" foreigners conducting air raids on their lands.
In contrast with the confusion and strategic incoherence among his enemies stands the caliph of the Islamic State. However barbarically inhumane he may be, al-Baghdadi is not incoherent in relation to his long-term objective and the tactical and operational means required for its attainment. He wants the world outside the caliphate, including moderate Arab countries, to be struck down with massive social, political and economic chaos. Mass casualty attacks on the civil population of his perceived enemies are the method. The likelihood, in the absence of coherent and strong leadership in the target nations, are future attacks that unfortunately will dwarf the bloodbath in Paris in their murderous impact.