As ISIS takes responsibility for the horror of Friday night and details on the deadly attacks continue to emerge, one question remains: Why Paris?
A statement from the group bragged of their ability to strike the city, “eight brothers wrapped in explosive belts and armed with machine rifles, targeted sites that were accurately chosen in the heart of the capital of France.”
Why were restaurants, a stadium, and a concert hall in a Western capital “accurately chosen?”
The answer can be found in Syria and Iraq. There, since September 2014, ISIS has lost significant territory and faces the near-term prospect of losing to a multiprong offensive by the international coalition that could decisively cripple the terrorist group. With these daunting prospects, ISIS is lashing out, much like a cornered animal, and the Paris attacks are part of this.
A year ago, the United States, Great Britain, and France were the largest states leading a broad international coalition against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the main purpose of which is to contain its geographic spread and rollback the territorial gains of the group.
French forces are a major part of this military coalition against the Islamic State. Although Western media reports often focus on the coalition’s airstrikes alone, it is important to see that the coalition has mounted a strategy that combines air power and local ground power in a way that is seriously weakening the group in the region.
The French have contributed importantly to the sustained air campaign that, along with the Western coalition’s local ground allies, the Shia-led Iraqi government forces and Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria, have stopped the Islamic State’s territorial momentum — the days of worrying about the fall of Baghdad, the Mosul Dam, and Irbil are long past — and, as the map below shows, have shrunk the territorial areas controlled by ISIS from January to July 2015 by about 10 percent.
Since the summer, the coalition has launched a still more ambitious phase of its strategy. In mid-October, the West launched a four-prong series of offensives against ISIS, beginning with sustained air and local ground thrusts against the group’s strongholds in Raqqa in Syria, and Ramadi, Baiji, Hawiji, and Sinjar in Iraq. More recently, Russia entered the fray against ISIS. To be sure, Russia is focused on its goals of saving the Assad regime in Syria and has done little to work in a coordinated fashion with the Western coalition. However, Assad is a mortal enemy of ISIS and targeting ISIS also serves his interests.
As these maps show, these multiple offensives against ISIS are not simply important as individual attacks. They are occurring in locations in Syria and Iraq that, altogether, threaten to decisively wound ISIS and quite possibly break its area of control into multiple pieces. The whole of this phase is far more threatening to ISIS than sum of its parts.
This picture greatly helps to explain the recent Paris attacks. ISIS is not only attacking France. The group is lashing out against the states that are now posing crippling blows to its dreams of a caliphate in the Middle East.
Before the last month, ISIS encouraged attacks by one or a few lone wolves, largely self-radicalized individuals, in five of the seven Western members of the coalition. France itself was targeted in the Charlie Hebdo attack in January, which featured three attackers targeting two groups of civilians, killing 17.
While airstrikes against the group have killed thousands of militants and forced them to go on the defensive in Syria and Iraq, ISIS has quickly responded overseas. Now that it is on the verge of a truly crippling loss of ground, ISIS is upping its game to more sophisticated attacks requiring the coordination of more parts of the organization and so killing vastly more people.
Two weeks ago, ISIS bombed a Russian civilian airplane, killing 224, in response to Russia’s military intervention in Syria. Presumably ISIS coordinated with local elements of the group to somehow slip a bomb on the plane. However the attack occurred, there is little doubt that ISIS invested far more time and effort to pull it off than their previous, much less sophisticated attacks on the West.
As its borders shrink, ISIS will lash out, seeking to force coalition members to withdraw and give ISIS a chance to regroup. Unfortunately, these events are likely not going to end any time soon, and we must be ready for further ISIS attacks. In the group’s statement claiming the attacks, they note that Paris “is the first of the storm.” This should particularly worry the United States and Britain, along with other members of the military coalition. Given ISIS’ track record and level of desperation, there is reason to believe they can carry through on their threats.
Robert Pape is the director of the University of Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism. His most recent book is “Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It.’’