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Latest terror attack points to a more sophisticated global threat

By Peter Jennings

Two days before the appalling massacre in Nice, Patrick Calvar, the head of France’s internal security agency was reported to have briefed a Parliamentary inquiry that the Islamic State would use car bombs in French attacks.

The DGSI Director General’s chilling statement was made in May, but only just now released: “I am sure that they will move to the level of vehicle bombs and explosive devices and they will thus increase their power.”

Calvar’s dilemma is the same faced by ASIO, the FBI and intelligence agencies around the world. We know with some certainty how attacks will unfold. As happened in Nice, authorities also often know the suspects involved and have tracked their radicalisation.

But that knowledge tells us nothing useful about the timing or location of attacks. By definition a successful terrorist attack flies under the radar of security authorities.

In coming days we will learn more about the 31 year old truck driver, reportedly of Tunisian origin, with a petty criminal record. There are plenty of early indicators that the attack has traceable connections back to the Islamic State.

Film of the attack shows the driver carefully and slowly moving the truck into a position best able to target the crowded street, he then speeds the vehicle up with the cab already under police fire. 

The truck keeps moving while the driver reportedly also fires a weapon at the crowd. The fact that he keeps the vehicle moving for around two kilometres before being shot and killed is a sign of some training. The driver isn’t shocked into immobility, which is a natural human response for those not trained to operate in combat-type situations. 

The Islamic State has also claimed early responsibility. That’s not always proof of involvement, but it shows IS leaders were watching media reports and prepared to respond quickly.

The driver was apparently armed with automatic weapons and grenades. We will know soon enough if the vehicle had a bomb which failed to detonate. 

These details point to a measure of calm planning and careful forethought. They are also very similar to numerous vehicle-borne attacks in Iraq, Baghdad in particular. 

The Islamic State is not the only terror group to use vehicles as weapons. There have been significant number of vehicle-borne attacks in Israel. These have tended to involve vans or smaller passenger vehicles driven by Palestinians supporting Hamas. In 2008 a bulldozer was used in Jerusalem to kill three people and injure a dozen more. 

The Islamic State’s ideological competitor, al Qaeda, has also advocated using vehicle attacks. In an issue of Inspire, the English-language online magazine published by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, an article instructed Islamist extremists to on how to use vehicles to kill “the enemies of Allah.”

Attackers were advised to drive at speed to “achieve maximum carnage.” “If you can get through to ‘pedestrian only’ locations that exist in some downtown areas, that would be fabulous” the article said.

There is no reason to think that Hamas or al Qaida would target a Bastille Day parade in Nice. Nor is it likely that a deranged lone wolf would be able to stage such a planned and well-resourced attack.

These considerations point to Islamic State involvement, at least as a source of inspiration for the attacker, but more likely also playing a mentoring and training role to coach the individual in the best ways to mount the attack. 

What early lessons might be drawn from the Nice and other recent attacks, including the Istanbul and Brussels airport bombings?

First, we are seeing a spate of quite large, well-resourced and well-planned attacks, aimed at delivering mass casualties. This doesn’t look coincidental. 

The design of the attacks is different to one-off incidents like the shootings in Orlando.  Lone wolves can be radicalised on-line to commit isolated atrocities and the Islamic State will delight in the results while having limited or no connections to the attackers. 

But the terror group seem to be more deliberately focused and more deeply involved in planning complex attacks in Europe.

Second, we see terrorist tactics that have been used multiple times in Iraq and Syria being translated into Europe. 

As Patrick Calvar warned, we should prepare against the risk of terrorists using VBIEDs – vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices. IS has used VBIEDs in the fighting around Ramadi and Fallujah to devastating effect. 

Port and Harbour authorities should be concerned about similar risks involving small boats. Again, there are recent precedents in the Middle East. 

Readers will remember in May this year that five Australians were arrested for allegedly planning to become extremist fighters in Syria by sailing a boat from Cairns. 

Although the ‘tinny terrorists’ were considered a joke in media reporting, there would be nothing amusing if extremists were to consider the potential for water-borne attacks. 

It also can’t be long before terrorists start employing commercially available drones to deliver explosive charges. 

A third conclusion in the aftermath of the Nice attack is that the Islamic State has shown itself to be agile and innovative – to coin a phrase – in thinking of new ways to attack its enemies. They haven’t hesitated to export such offensive tactics to many locations in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

IS will keep the attacks going for as long as their leadership group survives to command and control the offensive. 

A fourth lesson from the Nice attack is that, although no part of Western Europe is immune from the risk of terrorism, France is particularly exposed.  Intelligence chief Patrick Calvar told French MPs that he worried the country was ‘on the brink of civil war.’

His concern is that further terrorist attacks might spark internal violence between extreme right wing groups and French Muslims. France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, including more than five million people from the Middle East, north and west Africa.

As is the case in neighbouring Belgium, many French Muslims live as an economic underclass in poor conditions in the banlieues, or outer suburbs of Paris and other cities. This is fertile ground for radical Islamist extremism to flourish.

Under French law it is illegal to distinguish individuals on the basis of their religion, but it is estimated that 70 per cent of France’s prison population is Muslim. 

Andrew Hussey, a Paris based British historian has described the French prison system as the ‘engine room of Islamist radicalisation in France.’ Around 650 French citizens are thought to be in Syria as supporters or fighters in extremist organisations.

In short, France faces a massive domestic problem with an internal population base harbouring a significant number of sympathisers for extremist Islamist ideology.

France’s military campaign of air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and its extensive military operations in North Africa, particularly in Mali, have been a centrally important part of the West’s war against terrorism. 

But these operations have also pushed some French Muslims closer to supporting Islamist extremism. 

To that must be added the domestic risk of foreign fighters returning to France with combat experience. The free movement of Europeans within the 26 country Schengen Zone makes it difficult for intelligence authorities to track suspects. 

In the November 2015 terrorist striks in Paris, all of the known attackers were European Union citizens able to move across internal European borders even though they were known to authorities as suspected terrorists. 

What will happen next? As happened after the Paris attacks, there may be quick, but largely symbolic, French military strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq. 

We should expect multiple police and security agency raids across Nice, Paris and other French cities as authorities quickly clamp down on known extremist sympathisers.

The challenge for police and intelligence agencies is balancing competing priorities between monitoring sympathisers and arresting suspects. Obviously specific information about terror plots will lead to arrests, but what does one do with a large number of people sympathetic to extremists but with no evident intent to harm? 

As each terror attack is comitted the French government will have few short-term options other than to detain a larger group of extremist sympathisers. 

The Nice attack will also spur further European sentiment towards controlling borders more closely. Parts of Paris may well go into lockdown as authorities close roads around government buildings and landmarks. 'The fact that three Australians were slightly injured in the attack shows that France’s problem is also our problem in a globalised world. 

As Australian Defence Force personnel had the honour of leading the annual Bastille Day parade down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, we should reflect on the fact that France and Australia are increasingly close, with a shared sense of the terrorism threat. 

Bilateral intelligence cooperation is already extensive, particularly on counter-terrorism. Australia’s decision to build a French-designed submarine shows that both countries have an intent to get closer across the defence and security spectrum. 

There is great value in closer cooperation between Canberra and Paris. Expect to see more of it as we watch the death-throws in Iraq of the Islamic state and the connected rise of a sophisticated global Islamist extremist terror threat.

Peter Jennings is the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Originally published: The Australian. 18 July 2016.

Originally published by: The Australian on 18 Jul 2016