Posted on: 23rd November 2015
As we find out more about the perpetrators of the Paris attacks, important dynamics are coming into focus. The attacks mark a shift in ISIS strategy and we need to urgently understand the ideological framework being used to radicalise young people and develop hubs of jihadis in Europe and around the world.
There is speculation that the attacks across Paris were planned and coordinated via direct links to senior operatives based in ISIS' de facto Syrian capital, Raqqa. The suspected ringleader and Belgian national, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was believed to be based in Syria last month during a French airstrike on Raqqa. But following a large-scale operation carried out by French security forces on 19 November which resulted in Abaaoud's death, it was confirmed that he had returned to Europe from Syria.
Abaaoud's involvement gives us clues to the degree of direct involvement ISIS had in the Paris attacks, signalling a change in strategic focus for the group if the cell benefited from close communication with ISIS directly. It will also raise important questions about how security services will need to evolve in response to the nature of the growing threat of ISIS to domestic security.
With at least three of the nine known to have been involved in the attacks across Paris previously being profiled by security services as potential threats, there will be a need to revisit cells and individuals within those cells that had previously been deemed less high risk than others.
But determining priority individuals for surveillance is complex. Journeys toward radicalisation take many paths. An individual's degree of engagement with extremist activity is fluid and adapts to changing contexts. The speed of radicalisation can vary and someone can rapidly become a greater threat when exposed to new contacts. Likewise, individuals once deemed as imminently dangerous can disengage for some time and limit their activities within a cell.
Belgium has struggled with the radicalisation in its prison system.
The suspects at the centre of suspicion for the Paris attacks illustrate this. Abdelhamid Abaaoud emerged as the central figure behind the coordinated attacks in Paris. Abaaoud was jailed in 2010 for armed robbery along with Salah Abdeslam, one of the Paris gunmen who attacked several bars and restaurants. While there is no substantial information regarding where and how Abaaoud became radicalised, Belgium has struggled with the radicalisation of Islamist extremists in its prison system.
Abaaoud most likely joined ISIS in Syria in 2013, and went on to appear in the group's propaganda . He was filmed riding on board a vehicle dragging mutilated bodies. Going by his nom de guerre Abu Umar al-Baljiki, Abaaoud was interviewed in the February 2015 issue of ISIS' English-language propaganda magazine Dabiq, mocking intelligence and security agencies over their failure to track his movements.
According to the interview in the magazine, Abaaoud and two others, Sofian Amghar and Khalid Ben Larbi had travelled from Belgium to Syria and then returned to Belgium to "terrorise the crusaders waging war against Muslims." Amghar and Larbi were killed in January 2015 during a Belgian police operation to foil an imminent attack, while Abaaoud who was also involved managed to escape and return to Syria. The last testimonies of Amghar and Larbi were presented in Dabiq, where the pair questioned how Muslims living in the West could continue to live among people that "wage war against Islam and the Muslims" and called on Muslims to "go forth for jihad, wherever you may be."
Belgium is becoming increasingly clear as an important hub for the Paris attackers. Three of the attackers, Bilal Hadfi, Ibrahim Abdesalam, and Salah Abdesalam, were all based there prior to the attacks in Paris, while two of the vehicles used in the coordinated attacks were also hired in the country.
The hunt for Salah Abdeslam and fears over an imminent attack prompted Belgian authorities to raise its terror threat level and lockdown parts of Brussels. Police and army forces launched a large-scale anti-terror operation, carrying out raids and arresting 16 people, but Salah Abdeslam remains at large.
Belgium is becoming an increasingly clear hub for the Paris attackers.
The sheer variety of different jihadi groups' presence in Belgium was demonstrated by nationwide raids in June 2015. Police arrested 16 people following intelligence reports about an attack on Belgian soil. Among those arrested were suspects with links to al-Qaeda affiliates Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Caucasus Emirate, and who had travelled to Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan to receive training.
The Brussels suburb of Molenbeek in particular is notorious for being a hub for assault weapons (at least one of the weapons used in the Charlie Hebdo attacks were purchased in the district) and jihadi activity. Abaaoud, was reportedly from Molenbeek, which has seen multiple police raids since Friday's attacks.
The apartment of a women with suspected links to Abaaoud was subject to a major police raid early on 17 November in Paris' northern Saint-Denis suburb. Although initial reports suggesting that Hasna Ait Boulahcen detonated a suicide vest were dismissed, her involvement has drawn attention to the broader issue of female radicalisation.
Using women as suicide bombers is not a new phenomenon for Salafi-jihadi groups but it is not a common ISIS tactic. But to view female members of ISIS as simply "jihadi brides" is a dangerous stereotype. Women are active members of ISIS and involved in security-related activities within ISIS-held territory. There are female-only security brigades in Raqqa, who patrol the city to ensure women adhere to ISIS' strict interpretation of female dress and behaviour.
The most extensive use of female suicide bombers has been by ISIS-affiliate Boko Haram in Nigeria. Boko Haram predominantly uses girls under 20 years old and the group has found they can access areas men and boys are restricted from and attract less suspicion from security services.
Far from being a new phenomenon, the use of women and girls as suicide bombers is the continuation of an existing trend. Many of the women are not forced into the act, but are as committed to the extremist ideology of Salafi-jihadi groups as their male counterparts. Radicalisation is not a gendered process and the ideology of groups such as ISIS can appeal equally to women as to men, with propaganda emphasising the appeal of jihad to both a male and female audience.
The developments on the streets of Paris, and the permutations across Europe, are understandably focused on imminent questions of domestic security. However, in the coming weeks it will be crucial to contextualise these attacks to ensure that lessons are learned for European countries to become more resilient against extremist ideologies.