By Alistair Lyon
Islamic State has claimed the coordinated attacks by gunmen and suicide bombers on bars, restaurants and a concert hall that killed at least 127 people in Paris, the bloodiest assault in Europe since the Madrid train bombings in 2002.
French President François Hollande said IS, already the target of French warplanes in Iraq and Syria, had committed an “act of war”.
IS had already claimed responsibility for the destruction of a Russian airliner over Egypt’s Sinai desert in which 224 people were killed on October 31. It had also said it carried out the suicide bombings that killed at least 40 people in the Hezbollah-controlled Shi’ite suburb of Burj al-Barajneh in Beirut on Thursday, the day before the bloodshed in Paris.
Hezbollah, France and Russia are each engaged in very different battles with IS, which has declared a caliphate that it aims to expand across the globe from its cross-border fiefdom in Iraq and Syria. The carnage in the Sinai, Beirut and Paris appears to carry a clear message: Those who combat IS can expect their own civilians to be targeted.
But there is another worry.
Previously IS, unlike its al Qaeda rivals, had appeared focused on consolidating its existing territorial base. True, it encouraged its sympathizers to mount attacks in the West. The extent of its involvement in one of the bloodiest, the Charlie Hebdo killings and a simultaneous supermarket attack in Paris in January, is not clear.
Is IS now bent simply on exacting revenge against the countries and forces ranged against it? Or are the latest attacks its first shots in a new campaign of global jihad?
Enemies of IS
Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Lebanese Shi’ite militia, has been fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents in Syria since 2012. Syrian rebel groups are diverse and often expend as much energy fighting each other as they do battling the Syrian army.
But all are Sunni Muslim and most are Islamists. They include at least one al Qaeda affiliate. IS, which is at odds with al Qaeda, represents the most extreme, ruthless and best-organized element.
In September France extended its air strikes against IS to Syria. It had already carried out raids in Iraq as part of a U.S.-led coalition that launched an air campaign against IS in 2014 after the group made rapid territorial gains at the expense of the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad.
At the end of September, Russia launched a separate bombing campaign in Syria directed not only at IS but also other anti-Assad rebels. Syria has been an ally of Moscow in the Middle East since the 1970s and of Iran since 1980.
All this would suggest that after the attacks on Russian, Lebanese and French civilians, IS may seek vengeance against its other enemies in the region and beyond, notably Iran, the United States and Britain. Iran, the main sponsor of Hezbollah, has also provided military assistance to Assad in Syria and to the Iraqi government and Iraqi Shi’ite militias.
It is not clear whether IS has the capacity to launch an attack within Shi’ite-dominated Iran, where it has no known power base, but Iranian interests elsewhere could be vulnerable.
In November 2013, a twin suicide bombing against the Iranian embassy in Beirut was claimed by another Syrian Islamist rebel group, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades. Hezbollah’s leader blamed the attack on Saudi Arabia, Iran’s bitter rival in the Middle East.
The Paris attacks will ring further alarm bells in the United States, Britain and other Western countries that are already on high alert for attacks by Islamist militants. Radicalized Muslims from some of these countries have gone to join IS in Syria or Iraq, but could be sent home on deadlier missions.
Turkey, which has borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran, turned fiercely against Assad after the Syrian uprising took hold in 2011 and tacitly supported Islamist rebel groups. Now, alarmed by the rise of IS, Ankara has joined the anti-IS coalition led by the United States.
Violence from Syria has repeatedly spilled over Turkey’s border. Yet uncertainty surrounds the worst attack it has suffered — two explosions that killed more than 100 people in Ankara on October 10.
President Tayip Erdogan’s Islamist-based government pointed the finger at IS, as it had done for an earlier bombing that killed more than 30 Kurdish activists near the Syrian border in July. IS, however, did not claim the Ankara explosions, which targeted a crowd of pro-Kurdish demonstrators.
What is clear is that no country embroiled in the conflicts in Iraq and Syria is immune from their repercussions.
Alistair Lyon is former Middle East diplomatic correspondent for Reuters. During three decades at the news agency he covered conflicts as well as political and economic news in the Middle East and beyond. He began in Lebanon and headed bureaus in Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan/Afghanistan and Egypt/Sudan. He spent five years in London as Middle East diplomatic correspondent and five in Beirut as special correspondent, Middle East.