Foreign Policy Blogs

The Timing of ISIS’ Attacks on Paris

Via New Middle East Blogspot

Via New Middle East Blogspot

In quick succession, the set of ISIS attacks in Paris, Sharm el-Sheikh and Beirut suggest that the group has crossed a threshold for international terrorism. In the case of the Paris attacks, these were “spectacular acts,” planned well in advance, with terrorists waiting for the opportune time to strike.

Less obvious is why now. Kenneth Waltz’s neo-realist “three level analysis” and Robert Jervis’ notion of “perception and misperception” may provide a broader picture of connected issues (Waltz, Kenneth N. 1959, Man, the State and War, New York: Columbia University Press; Jervis, Robert. 1976. Perception and Misperception in International Politics Princeton, N.J.; Princeton University Press). First, at Waltz’s “third image” or systems level, there appears to be realignment of terrorist group interests and possibly terrorist groups across several North African countries. After years of estrangement from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) leaders, particularly Abdelmalek Droukdel and Mohktar Belmokhtar’s “al-Mourabitoun” carried out the Radisson Blu terrorist assault in Bamako in conjunction with AQIM’s “Sultan Emirate” led by Yaha Abou-Hammam.

This is new. Consistent with North African terrorist group “fence mending” as al-Qaeda and ISIS compete, it bodes ill for security in northern Africa as groups now might achieve “economies of scale” in operations. This environment, where terrorist groups dictate events, echoes U.S. problems with foreign policy in the early 1950s, when the Soviets chose when and where to marshal American military resources in proxy wars. That realignment also puts the spotlight on Ansar Dine and its leader, Iyad Ag Ghali in Mali, because Ansar Dine’s actions (or inaction) influence French foreign policy both in Mali and Algeria.

Another “third image” factor that involves three or more states is Putin’s Syrian strategy. With Putin’s “first mover advantage,” ISIS and the West must probably accept Assad’s continued role in Syria for at least the next few months. The “perception or misperception” is probably that a weaker transitional authority after Assad is vulnerable to an ISIS onslaught. Thus, the Paris attacks might be an act of Thomas Schelling’s  “compellence” to force Assad from power even though as Schelling states, “compellence” is harder to accomplish than deterrence (Schelling, Thomas 1963. The Strategy of Conflict, New York: Oxford University Press). Still, 139 dead in the heart of Paris is very compelling.

At the “second image” level, focus is on Turkey, Iran, and France. Both are what Brian Jenkins and Martha Crenshaw would call “secondary audiences” to the Paris assaults. President Erdogan, fresh from his recent electoral victory, has new political capital to either increase his support for his Turkmen allies, reinforce his stance against the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) in Syria, or shift the burden of ISIS to other NATO members to work with Russia, if he believes, at least in the short-run, that it is inopportune to confront ISIS now. The Russian SU-24 shot down over Hatay province dovetails with that notion. Be that as it may, it is wise for Erdogan to support Russia’s backing of Assad at least tacitly, since Russia and Turkey are significant trade partners.

Another “second image” level is Iranian foreign policy. It seems possible ISIS leaders have “perceived or misperceived” the recent rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran as a gateway for future Iranian-American cooperation against ISIS in Yemen and Syria, and that the time is now for Iran’s President Rouhani to receive a strong message about the consequences of such a partnership. In addition, French policy toward North Africa is deeply flawed—at the domestic level, acculturation and political and economic assistance remain poorly developed. Internationally, French leaders cope with perception they do little or nothing to integrate former colonies into the French economy and the European Union (EU).

At the “first image” or individual level,  explanatory factors and their effects remain harder to decipher outside of broader strains between Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Ayman al-Zawahiri. The attack in Paris showcased ISIS’s own French nationals of North African background. That terrorist assault characteristic is consistent with recent terrorist group realignment of the type described against the backdrop of this worldwide competition against al-Qaeda. Much about the Paris attacks timing remains largely unknown, but all or some of those factor effects probably coalesced to produce the critical mass necessary to launch the Paris assaults.



Richard Chasdi

Dr. Chasdi is a Professor of Management and Associate Director at the Center for Complex and Strategic Decisions at Walsh College. He teaches International Security, International Business Management, and Culture and Doing Business in the Middle East. He is an internationally recognized specialist in terrorism and counter-terrorism studies and his research interests include multinational corporations’ security in an increasingly globalized world.

He holds a B.A. from Brandeis University in Politics, an M.A. from Boston College, and a Ph.D. from Purdue University in Political Science.