The Paris terrorist attacks featured three separate teams backed by a support network stretching across several European nations — bearing a level of operational sophistication and capability that Islamist terrorists have not shown in the West in the decade or so since al Qaeda’s four-plane Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. and the four-bomb London transport attacks of 2005.
Western leaders remained shaken through the weekend that the Islamic State, which seems to have eclipsed al Qaeda on the global jihadi stage, or its sympathizers were able to plan and coordinate such an assault, which killed 129 people and injured more than 350 in the French capital Friday night.
“That people affiliated with ISIS can carry out these kinds of attacks using suicide vests and assault rifles — these are not bumbling lone wolf ops; these were very sophisticated,” William McCants, a Brookings Institution scholar and the author of “The ISIS Apocalypse,” told The Washington Times.
By Sunday night, as French military forces pounded the Islamic State’s self-styled capital in Raqqa, Syria, officials in Belgium had detained seven people in connection with the attacks. Germany said it was investigating whether a man arrested last week with weapons and explosives in a car whose GPS was set for Paris had links to the plot.
Officials in the Balkans and in Greece were examining records tied to a Syrian passport that was found next to one of the seven suicide bombers in the attacks, which were spread across eight locations in Paris. Officials said the passport holder crossed into Western Europe alongside thousands of refugees from Syria.
Border controls remained heightened in France, where President Franois Hollande called the attacks “an act of war.” Thousands of French military troops remained in Paris as tourist sites stood shuttered in one the most visited cities on earth, while more details started to emerge about the investigation.
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According to a statement from the French Defense Ministry, 10 fighter jets launched “massive” airstrikes on Raqqa, where Iraqi intelligence officials say the attacks were planned. Twenty bombs were dropped, destroying a jihadi training camp and a munitions dump, Paris said.
The Islamic State, a Salafist Muslim group with headquarters in Iraq and Syria, claimed responsibility. Also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh, the Islamic State said it had sent the teams of militants strapped with suicide bombing belts and carrying machine guns to attack locations in Paris, which the extremists described as a “capital of prostitution and obscenity.”
The claim came via the same Internet channel that Islamic State operatives used two weeks ago to claim it had downed a Russian passenger jet over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt — bolstering claims by some counterterrorism analysts that the group has morphed into a global terrorist organization bent on carrying out sophisticated operations in far-flung foreign lands.
This operational shift by the Islamic State was not predicted by the Obama administration or the wider American intelligence community, both of which have spent the past year asserting that the Islamic State was focused on creating a Muslim caliphate in Syria and Iraq, and was neither interested in nor capable of carrying out massive international attacks.
President Obama vowed Sunday to “redouble” U.S. efforts against the group. He made the comment after meeting at the start of the Group of 20 summit in Turkey with other world leaders, several of whom also called for a vigorous response to the Paris attacks. Among them was Russian President Vladimir Putin, who urged “global efforts” to confront the group.
Muslim leaders from dozens of nations condemned the attacks — including from the Saudi Arabia-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Muslim World League based in the Saudi city of Mecca, Islam’s holiest city.
It remains to be seen is how Washington might change its policy of relatively low-level military engagement against the Islamic State.
U.S. fighter jets have carried out bombing raids in Syria, Iraq and North Africa over the past year, but they have been restrained. Oil refineries, the extremist group’s financial lifeblood, have managed to avoid being struck, as American jets and drones have instead focused on hitting Islamic State military equipment and leaders.
Pentagon officials said over the weekend that a U.S. F-15 fighter strike had killed the head of the main Islamic State affiliate group in Libya, a hotbed of the group’s attempt to expand its control of territory beyond Syria and Iraq.
Officials said the strike was planned days before the Paris attacks. Beyond the tough calls for action by Mr. Obama and others, there was little explanation of how international military operations against the Islamic State might be escalated or better coordinated going forward.
Some in Washington criticized the president for claiming in a TV interview last week — a day before the Paris attacks — that the Islamic State was effectively “contained” in Syria and Iraq.
“I would hate to see what ISIS looks like unleashed,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael T. McCaul, a Texas Republican who called for a significant ramping-up of U.S. and international military operations against extremists.
“We need to have NATO coalition forces in there, we need airstrikes that don’t have rules of engagement behind them, and we need to have the Sunni Arabs putting skin in the game to protect their own backyard and their own religion,” Mr. McCaul said.
“We’ve had three major external operations,” he said, referring to the Paris attacks, the Russian airliner bombing over Egypt and a massive double suicide bombing in Beirut.
“We’re realizing that ISIS now has the capability not just to establish the caliphate but then expand this mission beyond and conduct external operations,” Mr. McCaul said.
Some analysts said Sunday that while the Islamic State’s claims of responsibility for Paris, Sinai and Beirut have triggered a new narrative around the group’s ambitions and capabilities, great uncertainty remains about whether the operations were centrally planned, financed and executed.
“Everybody’s waiting to see if these attacks go back to ISIS central and then to figure out what that means,” Mr. McCants said.
“Does it mean ISIS central trained these guys, paid for these guys and sent these guys? Does it mean central didn’t follow the day-to-day operation, but that there’s a ‘foreign ops’ chief?” Mr. McCants pondered in an interview. “Or does it mean these guys assembled on their own and told ISIS about the plot at the last minute, then went ahead and did it and ISIS central claimed responsibility because they’re generally familiar with these guys?
“There are shades of difference for each of those scenarios, and right now we just don’t know which one is accurate,” he said. “But even if these attacks are not tied back to ISIS central,” their sophistication is still troubling.
European officials said Sunday that three of the seven suicide bombers killed in the Paris attacks were French citizens, as was at least one of the seven other people arrested in neighboring Belgium.
One person believed to have been among the killers — Brussels-born Salah Abdelslam — remained on the loose Sunday night, European authorities said.
But, The Associated Press reported, police already had him early Saturday when they stopped a car carrying three men near the Belgian border. Three French police officials and a top French security official confirmed that officers let Mr. Abdelslam go despite hours having passed since he was identified as a suspect, after checking his ID, AP reported.
The information highlighted fears of possible homegrown terrorism in France, which officials have said is a top country of origin for thousands of foreign fighters who have traveled to join Islamic State operations in Syria and Iraq during the past year.
A French survivor of the rampage at Paris’ Bataclan concert hall, where 89 of Friday night’s victims were gunned down, said he was struck by how young the attackers were.
Julien Pearce, a journalist at Europe 1 radio, was at the concert hall when the three attackers stormed in. “It took me a few seconds to realize it was gunshots,” he said.
Mr. Pearce and his friends managed to crawl into a tiny dark room close to the stage.
“There was no exit, so we were just in another trap, less exposed, but still a trap,” he said, adding that he could discreetly look out and see one of the assailants.
“He seemed very young,” Mr. Pearce said. “That’s what struck me — his childish face, very determined, cold, calm, frightening.”
Balkan authorities, meanwhile, are tracking the travels of a man whose Syrian passport was found next to the body of a suicide bomber at France’s national stadium Friday night.
Officials in Greece said the passport’s owner entered the country Oct. 3 through Leros, one of the eastern Aegean islands that tens of thousands of people fleeing the civil war in Syria have been using as a gateway into the 28-nation European Union.
Serbian and Croatian authorities said the man is confirmed to have later passed through their nations and was not flagged as suspicious, as he continued his journey toward Hungary and Austria.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.