Q1: What happened in Paris?

A1: On Friday, November 13, eight terrorists assaulted civilians at restaurants, a concert hall, and a stadium in Paris, killing at least 132 people and injuring hundreds more. The militants, acting on behalf of ISIS, used a combination of assault rifles and bombs. Police killed one terrorist while six died as a result of detonating suicide bombs. One remains at large.

Q2: Who conducted the assault?

A2: ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, calling it “the first of the storm.” The perpetrators were Belgian, French, and Syrian residents, with attack planning having taken place in both Syria and Belgium. Three brothers colluded on the attack–two died and one is at large (Saleh Abdeslam). At least one of the attackers appears to have used a doctored passport and have traveled from Syria to Europe for the assault. The perpetrators exact relationship with ISIS is not yet known, but there is a strong link to Syria.

Q3. Why was France targeted?

A3: France is a frontline member of the anti-ISIS coalition, and has long been engaged in aggressive counter-terrorism action at home and abroad against Islamist extremists. In late September of this year, France began air strikes against ISIS targets in Syria. France’s restrictive policies toward religious garb is seen by Muslims as a thinly veiled attack on their culture. France’s otherwise liberal society is deplored by violent extremists. In establishing their self-declared “Islamic State,” ISIS repudiates the 100-year old French-British Sykes-Picot agreement that carved up the Middle East into spheres of influence and modern-day states.

Q4: Was this an intelligence failure?

A4: Yes—and France was on high alert for such an attack. Though France has world-class intelligence and law enforcement, no state can prevent all plots from succeeding. Well-organized and highly motivated attackers are difficult to detect, deter, and stop. Intelligence sharing is never as good as it can be, and France has more suspects (reportedly 11,000) than it has resources to cover them. This attack will raise vigilance at home and retaliation abroad—but to an unsustainable level.

Q5: What happens now?

A5: France and its allies will continue pursuing all involved in the attack, and work hard to discover and disrupt additional plots. French combat aircraft struck ISIS targets within 48 hours of the attack, and could deploy special operations forces in the Syrian battlespace to kill ISIS members. There will not be a definitive end to France’s (or any nation’s) battle with ISIS—but rather an evolution in the violence. As CIA Director John Brennan said, “this is not the only operation ISIS has in the pipeline.”


Thomas Sanderson is a senior fellow and director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Thomas M. Sanderson