The Islamic State Strikes Again in France: A Tale of Two Omars

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 23

A Parisian police officer holds his position during the November 13 Paris attacks (Source: Twitter user @shababaty).

The November 13, 2015 attacks in France were the deadliest in Europe committed by the jihadist movement since the Madrid attacks in March 2004. The attacks, claimed by the Islamic State in a statement and a video, are still in the very early stages of investigation by the French authorities. The full details will take months to determine, including: the exact details of the perpetrators, the role of external entities and why the attackers were not disrupted prior to executing the attacks. However, some facts are already clear: The attacks come in a year where, prior to the latest incidents, the French authorities have dealt with nine other publicly known plots or attacks, double that of previous years (two in 2012, four in 2013, six in 2014 and nine in 2015). [1] Initial indications are also that an Islamic State-linked group of Belgian and French foreign fighters are behind at least half of the plots and attacks in 2015. The plot and attack tempo will have engaged significant levels of counter-terrorism resources, which were simultaneously dealing with travelers to and returnees from Syria and Iraq—approximately 2,000 people—with about half that number having been in the Syria and Iraq conflict zones at some point since 2013. [2]

Returnee Involvement in Plots

Initially plots and attacks in France from September 2012 onwards suggested some returnee involvement, albeit as single attackers, with a number of individual acts inspired by the Islamic State. The January 2015 attacks by associates of the Buttes-Chaumont network—claimed by both the Islamic State (Amedy Coulibaly) and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) (the Kouachi brothers)—pointed towards multiple threat vectors—the Islamic State, AQAP as well as an earlier generation of jihadists. [3] If the Islamic State appeared willing to allow returnees to attack at home as well as endorsing more the personal initiatives of sympathizers—for example, the list of attacks mentioned in the sixth and tenth issues of the Islamic State’s online magazine Dabiq—without providing direct support, an acceleration in the tempo of plots and attacks following the January events suggested a change in the threat environment. [4]

Evidence also emerged over the course of the summer of 2015 that French and Belgian nationals with the Islamic State in Syria were involved with tasking and equipping plotters arrested in France. This group of French and Belgian nationals are alleged to have been involved in five plots or attacks; one in Verviers, Belgium in January 2005, one in Paris in April 2015, two in August 2015 (a concert hall in Paris and the Paris-bound Thalys train) and the November 13, 2015 attacks, again in Paris. [5] The French authorities have also announced a second wave of attacks planned for either the 18th or 19th of November in the La Defense area of Paris when they raided a safe house in Seine-Saint-Denis. [6] The raid in January 2015, in Verviers, is assessed to have potentially disrupted a series of attacks. If this was the case, the attack network was delayed by four months before they restarted their targeting efforts. [7] There is also a suggestion that Mehdi Nemmouche (a French national who carried out the May 2014 Brussels attack) knows one of the individuals believed to have played a key role in November attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud (“Abu Omar al-Soussi” or “Abu Omar al-Baljiki”), a Belgian national. It is unclear if Abaaoud was in anyway involved in Nemmouche’s May attack.

A second individual, Fabien Clain (a.k.a. “Omar”), a French convert from Toulouse, has been mentioned in connection with this series of plots and attacks. He arrived in Syria in early 2014 along with his brother. [8] Fabien Clain has long-standing ties to the Artigat cluster of foreign travelers, which emerged in the early 2000s and included, among others, Sabri Essid (who is in Syria with the Islamic State and has appeared in a beheading video) and Mohamed Merah (who was behind the March 2012 Toulouse attacks). Press have reported that Clain had connections to individuals interested in attacking the Bataclan in 2009. [9] In the mid-2000s, Clain lived or visited Belgium and knew persons connected to the Iraq War-era “Kari” network, responsible for facilitating the first female European convert’s involvement in an attempted suicide attack against U.S. forces in Iraq in November 2005. [10] Clain’s name recently surfaced in another Belgian foreign fighter trial in September 2015; some of the accused had traveled to France to meet him on two occasions, including when Clain left prison. [11]

Reports following the arrest of Sidi Ahmed Ghlam in April of this year in Paris suggested that he had been tasked by French speaking Islamic State fighters, including Fabien Clain. [12] Later indications of the involvement of the other “Omar”—Abdelhamid Abaaoud—emerged with the arrest of Reda Hame, tasked with the possibility of attacking a concert hall, and also Ayoub el-Khazzani. Abaaoud, had been earlier linked to the police raids in Verviers, Belgium, which stopped an attack. [13] Calls by Abaaoud from Greece to the men in the house in Verviers were intercepted. [14] Abaaoud was notorious for having taken his 13-year-old brother to Syria and was active on social media and gave an interview to the Islamic State’s seventh issue of Dabiq. [15] Abaaoud appears to have leveraged both his prior social network—friends and family—as well as a more recent one formed within the French-speaking Islamic State community in Syria to organize and carry out the attacks.

Abaaoud’s involvement in the November 13 attacks was made public prior to the French police raiding a house on the outskirts of Paris seeking to arrest him and where he was killed. Clain’s connection to the November 13 attacks was confirmed in a video statement, where he acknowledged them. [16] It is unknown to what extent this attack activity involving Clain and Abaaoud is supported directly by the Islamic State, or whether other French nationals like Salim Benghaldem or Boubakeur el-Hakim play roles. The death of Abaaoud will have disrupted the immediate menace from this attack network and exposed wider support networks, but the numbers of French and Belgian fighters and the mixing of three “generations of jihad” in the Islamic State means that this is likely only a temporary setback.

This Syria-based Francophone attack network has some similarities to the pre-9/11, Rachid Boukhalfa (Abu Doha) network that provided facilitation support for entry to the camps in Afghanistan for training or for those wanting to travel to Chechnya. [17] This predominantly Algerian grouping also attempted a number of attacks, most notorious being the 2000 Strasbourg market plot. Similar to the Paris attacks, the logistics and planning for this projected attack were conducted from a neighboring state, in this case Germany, in the hope that the German authorities were less vigilant or that cross-border intelligence cooperation was not functioning.

The Threat to France

The French counter-terrorism services are now faced with a threat that is more complex than in previous years, with multiple actors engaged in plotting attacks, inside and outside the country. While targeting is concentrated against Paris, it also involves other urban centers in France. The geographic origins too are more dispersed, lying not only in Iraq or Syria, but also Yemen and Turkey. [18] And the activity is highly disruptive because of the tempo of operations involving numerous actors, a variety of targets (civilian and military) and different modi operandi (firearms, knives or explosives). The distribution of the targeting is also scattered. While Paris remains a primary focus of attack activity, plots in other urban centers, such as Lille, Lyon and Nice among others, have been foiled.

The threat is also durable; some individuals, like Clain, have remained engaged over long periods of time. Persons involved in foreign fighter networks connected to the first Iraq conflict (such as the Buttes-Chaumont and Artigat clusters) took nearly a decade to become involved in attacks inside France. [18] The same may be true for the Syrian conflict, and given the volume of persons involved, attempted attacks are likely to continue for a number of years. The presence of different “generations of jihad” in the threat matrix along with the wider social networks of the foreign fighters adds to the complexity of the assessment process for the French security services.

The current threat is also highly disruptive due to the tempo of plots, acts and operations—approximately one every ten weeks since September 2012—emerging from Syria and Iraq or from individuals sympathetic to the groups operating in that theater. The investigation of these incidents requires resources, and the number of events will have stretched the French counter-terrorism entities, particularly over the past year. The reasons for this tempo are not entirely clear, but there has been an acceleration since Islamic State spokesperson, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, called for attacks in September 2014; twelve of 22 events have occurred since this. The engagement of French military assets against the Islamic State might be another reason. The cadence of future events will depend to a certain extent on the evolution of the conflict in Syria and Iraq, and the ability of the groups to continue to influence French nationals and residents both at home and in the conflict zone to act. There will be no end to the current Islamic State-generated attacks until political settlements end the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. This is highly unlikely in the short term.

The immediate challenge, therefore, is for the French security services to manage the investigation of the November 13 attacks, which will require significant resources, and at the same time prevent further incidents that seem probable given the current plot rhythm. This will be difficult as the personnel in the various services are nearing the limits of what is physically possible, and new staff promised following the January attacks will take time to become trained and operational. More resources will not of themselves solve the current challenge. As a result of this, and the continuing volume of attempted attacks, there will be further successful attacks and also partially successful ones, both in France and involving French nationals in the coming years.

Timothy Holman is a Ph.D. candidate at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

Notes

1. Details of the plots and attacks are available in an Excel spreadsheet at this link https://acrossthegreenmountain.files.wordpress.com/2015/11/plots-attacks-france-24112015.xlsx.

2. See here for numbers http://mobile.interieur.gouv.fr/Actualites/L-actu-du-Ministere/Ouverture-de-la-journee-de-reflexion-sur-la-prevention-de-la-radicalisation.

3. On contact with Coulibaly, see Vincent, Elise, “Attentats De Paris : La Justice Sur Les Traces Des Commanditaires,” Lemonde, November 7, 2015, http://abonnes.lemonde.fr/police-justice/article/2015/11/07/attentats-de-paris-la-justice-sur-les-traces-du-donneur-d-ordres_4805115_1653578.html.

4. Dabiq, Issue 6, https://azelin.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/the-islamic-state-e2809cdc481biq-magazine-622.pdf.

5. Soren Seelow, “Abdelhamid Abaaoud, Le Commerçant Belge Soupçonné D’avoir Commandité Les Attentats,” Abonnes.Lemonde.Fr, November 17, 2015, http://abonnes.lemonde.fr/attaques-a-paris/article/2015/11/17/abdelhamid-abaaoud-le-petit-commercant-belge-soupconne-d-avoir-commandite-les-attaques-de-paris_4811395_4809495.html.

6. “Attentat Déjoué À La Défense, Nouveau Mandat D’arrêt International Émis : Le Point Sur L’enquête,” Lemonde, November 25, 2015, http://www.lemonde.fr/attaques-a-paris/article/2015/11/24/le-point-sur-l-enquete-attentat-dejoue-a-la-defense-un-complice-sous-mandat-d-arret-international_4816740_4809495.html.

7. Paul Cruickshank, “A View From the CT Foxhole: An Interview with Alain Grignard, Brussels Federal Police,” CTC Sentinel 8, no. 8 (August 2015): 7–10.

8. Jean-Manuel Escarnot, “Fabien Clain, De La PME Islamiste Au Jihad Syrien,” Liberation.Fr, August 4, 2015, http://www.liberation.fr/societe/2015/08/04/fabien-clain-de-la-pme-islamiste-au-jihad-syrien_1358714.

9. Soren Seelow, “Fabien Clain, La « Voix » Du Massacre De Paris, Avait Déjà Menacé Le Bataclan en 2009,” Lemonde.Fr, November 18, 2015, http://www.lemonde.fr/attaques-a-paris/article/2015/11/18/fabien-clain-la-voix-du-massacre-de-paris-avait-deja-menace-le-bataclan-en-2009_4812298_4809495.html.

10. Ibid.

11. Julien Balboni, “Terrorisme: Les Liens Troubles Entre Radicaux Belges Et Français,” Dhnet.Be, September 16, 2015, http://www.dhnet.be/actu/faits/terrorisme-les-liens-troubles-entre-radicaux-belges-et-francais-55f872943570b0f19ea70a19.

12. Soren Seelow, “Attentat Manqué De Villejuif : Sur La Piste Des Commanditaires,” Le Monde, August 3, 2015; Timothée Boutry and Adrien Cadorel, “La Nébuleuse De Sid Ahmed Ghlam,” Le Parisien-Aujourd’hui en France, August 10, 2015.

13. Seelow, “Abdelhamid Abaaoud, Le Commerçant Belge Soupçonné D’avoir Commandité Les Attentats;” Soren Seelow, “Qui Est Abdelhamid Abaaoud, Le Commanditaire Présumé Des Attaques De Paris ?,” Le Monde.Fr, November 16, 2015, http://www.lemonde.fr/attaques-a-paris/article/2015/11/16/qui-est-abdelhamid-abaaoud-le-commanditaire-presume-des-attaques-de-paris_4811009_4809495.html; “Arrestation D’un HommeRevenu De Syrie Qui AuraitProjeté Des AttentatsContreUne Salle De Concert,” Lemonde.Fr, September 18, 2015, http://www.lemonde.fr/police-justice/article/2015/09/18/arrestation-d-un-ex-djihadiste-qui-aurait-projete-des-attentats-contre-une-salle-de-concert_4762141_1653578.html.

14. Department of Homeland Security, “Future IS Operationsin the West Could Resemble Disrupted Belgian Plot,” May 13, 2015, p.2.

15. The interview is on pages 72 to 75 in Dabiq 7. Emmanuel Fansten, Sylvain Mouillard, and Willy Le Devin, “Qui Sont Les Auteurs Et Le Commanditaire Présumé Des Attentats ?,” Liberation.Fr, November 16, 2015, http://www.liberation.fr/france/2015/11/16/qui-sont-les-auteurs-et-commanditaires-des-attentats_1413775.

16. Seelow, “Fabien Clain, La « Voix » Du Massacre De Paris, Avait Déjà Menacé Le Bataclan en 2009.”

17. Thomas Hegghammerfirst made this comparison on Twitter, see https://twitter.com/Hegghammer/status/666784823466442753 and Thomas Hegghammer and Petter Nesser, “Assessing the Islamic State’s Commitment to Attacking the West,” Perspectives on Terrorism 9, no. 4 (2015). See also Millot, Lorraine, “Premier Procès Al-Qaeda en Allemagne,” Liberation.Fr, April 17, 2002, http://www.liberation.fr/planete/2002/04/17/premier-proces-al-qaeda-en-allemagne_400544.

18. Ghlam is alleged to have met an individual in Turkey who began to task him to commit an attack in France. Seelow, Soren, “Sid Ahmed Ghlam, entre les mailles du filet,” Le Monde, August 3, 2015; Boutry, Timothée, and Adrien Cadorel, “La nébuleuse de Sid Ahmed Ghlam,” Le Parisien-Aujourd’hui en France, August 10, 2015.

19. Cadorel, Adrien, “Attentats : l’ombre des vétéransfrançais du jihad,” Le Parisien-Aujourd’hui en France, May 16, 2015.