Police officers patrol the Champs Élysées in Paris.
Photograph: Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images
Was the terrorist attack in Paris on Thursday night executed by Islamic State in a deliberate attempt to influence the presidential election in France, which starts on Sunday?
The suggestion may seem far-fetched, and it would be a significant shift for a group known more for nihilistic ultra-violence than efforts to manipulate western political process, but it is not impossible.
We still know relatively little about how strategic and tactical decisions are made at the top levels of Isis. We knew more about al-Qaida. Osama bin Laden, the founder of the group and the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks in New York, was not averse to exploiting a western electoral calendar. In 2004, days before the US election, Bin Laden released a video statement explaining why he had targeted the west and promising further attacks. Some then suggested Bin Laden had sought to help George W Bush get re-elected, arguing that the US president’s polarising strategies and interventions helped Islamists.
No evidence has ever emerged to back this contention. It is more likely Bin Laden’s intervention was simply aimed at getting maximum publicity for his extremist vision of the world.
Isis, formed of a group that split from al-Qaida, has broken with jihadi tradition many times before, so it is possible, if unlikely, that it has embarked on a new, ambitious strategy.
As with Bin Laden’s earlier intervention, it may superficially appear the group could have a political motive. Any terrorist attack linked to Islamic militants, so the thinking goes, will rally voters behind Marine Le Pen and her extreme rightwing Front National. A Le Pen victory would send an uncompromising message to France’s large Muslim minority about their place in the country, raising tensions, easing recruitment for extremists, increasing the likelihood of further attacks and thus accelerating a cycle of violence.
Islamic State has made no secret of its desire to widen existing social, racial and religious fractures in France and other western states. Part of this is pragmatic: these nations are contributing to the offensive that is putting the group under tremendous pressure in its strongholds in the Middle East. Part is strategic: creating chaos and anarchy is part of a long-term expansion plan outlined by key jihadi thinkers. And part is ideological: Isis aims to destroy any “grey zone” in which different cultures and faiths can co-exist.
Isis has a deep knowledge of and interest in French politics. A number of French militants who made their way to the Isis strongholds in Syria in recent years have risen up the group’s hierarchy to fill key posts. Many of these men have been killed, but not all. There is Boubaker al-Hakim, a French-Tunisian who arrived in Syria in 2013 and has jihadi form going back 15 years or more in his native land. There is also Abdelilah Himich, alias Abu Sulayman al-Faransi, who was born in Morocco but grew up in southern France. Himich has been linked to the attacks in Paris in 2015 and in Brussels four months later.
Isis still has resources, despite the best efforts of French security agencies. Himmich created a brigade of foreign fighters in Syria which, US officials say, may have once numbered 300 members. Some of these were involved in recent European plots. Most are dead or detained, but not all. One of the pair held this week in Marseille on suspicion of planning a terrorist attack may well have been in Syria recently. The group also appears able to attract enough volunteers in France to maintain a fairly high tempo of attempted and successful attacks.
But there is still no real evidence to indicate that Isis has attempted to manipulate any electoral process, in France or elsewhere, in favour of anyone.
A better explanation for the spate of violence in the last week is simply that the priority of Islamic militants, including Isis, is to maximise the publicity generated by any single attack. For all its nihilism, Islamic militant terrorism remains “propaganda by deed”.
One way to grab attention is to strike symbolic targets – the Houses of Parliament in London, for example. Another is to inflict mass casualties in places that people believe are safe – planes, nightclubs, schools. A third is to make sure an attack will, thanks to modern technology, be highly visible. The attacks on luxury hotels in Mumbai, India, in 2008, and a shopping mall in Nairobi in 2014, both broadcast in real time over three days, are an example of this. Now witnesses with mobile phones can do what TV cameras once did. The internet is already full of clips captured on the Champs Élysées on Thursday night.
Or terrorists can exploit timing. Last year’s attack in Nice killed 82 people on 14 July, France’s Bastille Day holiday and a fundamental date in the republican calendar. An attack days from one of the most contentious European elections for decades was always going to guarantee massive publicity, whatever the number of casualties. This appears to have been the goal of this most recent attack, and, as a glance at Friday’s front pages shows, it is one Isis have once more successfully achieved.