Two weeks ago, France’s top spy arrived in Washington for urgent meetings with his counterparts at the CIA and other agencies on the war in Syria and the rapidly morphing terrorist threat emanating from the Islamic State.
“We have now two kinds of threats,” Bernard Bajolet, the head of the French spy service, said in a rare public appearance during his visit. There is an “inside threat,” he said, speaking of young radicalized French residents, but “in addition to that we have the threat from outside, either through terrorist actions which are planned (and) ordered from outside or only through fighters coming back to our countries.”
The attacks Friday in Paris showed how these twin threats are converging on France like a vise, putting extraordinary pressure on security services that have long been regarded as among the most capable in Europe but now seem overwhelmed by a surge in plots tied to Islamist terrorist groups.
French and U.S. intelligence services were scrambling Saturday to make sense of the still-emerging details about an attack that involved eight militants launching assaults on targets scattered across the French capital, leaving at least 129 people dead.
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But a flurry of related arrests outside France and clues suggesting that at least one of the gunmen recently entered Europe through Greece seemed to bolster French President François Hollande’s description of the attack as one that was “prepared, organized and planned from outside the country by the Islamic State, but with help from inside.”
If so, the attack appears to have been a hybrid of the threat streams cited by the French spy chief last month, as well as an alarming evolution of the objectives and tactics employed by the Islamic State.
“They’re exploiting a seam in France,” said a senior U.S. official with access to classified information about the attacks and the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. “This could be ISIL-inspired” or involve “trained fighters from ISIL coming back to France,” the official said. “I’m not sure it makes much of a difference. ISIL feeds on this chaos.”
Since its break with al-Qaeda in February 2014, the Islamic State has focused most of its energy and resources on establishing and expanding a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State’s preoccupation with controlling territory seemed to set the group on a different path from al-Qaida and its overriding aim of mounting often-sophisticated terror attacks against Western targets.
But in a span of weeks, the Islamic State has been tied to plots with al-Qaida-style signatures of sophistication and spectacle.
The group claimed credit for the downing of a Russian airliner in Egypt last month, although authorities have yet to conclude definitively that the crash that killed all 224 people aboard was caused by a bomb.
Earlier this year, Islamic State loyalists began attacking soft targets outside the borders of its caliphate. The targets included a museum and a beach resort popular with Western tourists in Tunisia, and worshipers at Shiite mosques in Kuwait, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. In Cairo, an Islamic State cell claimed a car bomb attack on an Italian consulate.
The Islamic State promptly claimed credit Saturday for the Paris assaults, saying that France and other U.S. allies involved in the campaign of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria would “continue to be at the top of the target list for the Islamic State” and that “the scent of death will not leave their nostrils as long as they partake in the crusader campaign.”
U.S. officials said Saturday that they had seen no evidence so far that the plot in Paris was being directed from abroad while it unfolded. “That would be something you would hope that (French and U.S. spy services) would be seeing and intercepting,” the senior U.S. official said.
Threats against the West have been part of the Islamic State’s playbook since its inception as a rival to al-Qaida. But officials and experts said it may be more focused on fulfilling those threats in part because its momentum in Iraq and Syria has stalled.
The mayhem in Paris also moves the Islamic State back to the center of global headlines, providing attention and a perception of momentum that the terrorist group thrives on to attract support and recruits.
The attack comes as the perceived vulnerabilities of the United States and its allies against the Islamic State may be diverging.
FBI Director James B. Comey recently said that while the bureau remains deeply concerned about “lone wolf” attacks inspired by the Islamic State, the number of Americans seeking to travel to the Middle East to join the group has tapered off.
Overall, about 250 Americans have traveled to Iraq and Syria or tried to.
The flow of Islamist militants with European passports, by contrast, shows no signs of slowing. Bajolet, the head of the Directorate-General for External Security, said last month that at least 500 French citizens were believed to be fighting in Syria and Iraq, although the total number who have traveled there and perished or returned may be triple that.
“During the last month we have disrupted a certain number of attacks in our territory,” Bajolet said. “But this doesn’t mean that we will be able all the time to disrupt such attacks.”
France has steadily built some of the most robust and aggressive counterterrorism defenses of any European country over the past two decades, a project that dates to 1995, when Algerian Islamic extremists carried out a series of bombings on the Paris subway system.
Despite those efforts, French authorities have repeatedly warned that they are struggling to cope with a metastasized threat from a variety of actors. With the exception of Friday’s suicide bombings and January’s well-orchestrated, simultaneous attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo and other sites, most of the incidents were allegedly planned by lone individuals who either drew inspiration or indirect guidance from the Islamic State.
Almost all had lived in France for years. Many had traveled to conflict zones in the Middle East or had tried to do so.
Late last month, French authorities arrested a 25-year-old man, Hakim Marnissi.
Although the plot was thought to be in its embryonic stages, officials said Marnissi had tried twice - unsuccessfully - to travel to Syria and had been in touch with a French member of the Islamic State there.
In a similar case, French police arrested a 29-year-old Paris man on Aug. 15 after he had made a circuitous return to France from Raqqa, Syria - the capital of the Islamic State’s caliphate. French officials said the man admitted under questioning that he had received rudimentary military training in Syria and was urged to carry out some kind of attack back home, possibly on a concert hall.
That same month, authorities failed to detect another lone wolf, Ayoub el-Khazzani, a heavily armed gunman whose attack on a high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris was thwarted largely by the actions of three American tourists.
Khazzani, a native of Morocco, had grown up in Spain but recently moved to France. French officials said Khazzani was inspired by radical Islam and had traveled to Turkey, but whether he had direct connections to any militant groups remains unclear.
The Washington Post’s Thomas Gibbons-Neff in Washington and Erin Cunningham in Cairo contributed to this report.