French authorities believe that the funding and weapons for the attacks last week that killed 17 people in the streets of Paris last week came from abroad. According to French police union official Christophe Crepin, several people outside of France are being sought in connection with financing the attacks and weapons. “These are heavy weapons,” he told ABC. “When I talk about things like a rocket launcher — it’s not like buying a baguette on the corner. It’s for targeted acts.” The nature of the arms and the military sophistication of the attacks, argued Crepin, indicate an organized terror network.
That would be us, says Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which today released a video claiming responsibility for last week’s killing spree.
It’s certainly possible that AQAP planned and financed the bloodiest terror campaign in postwar France, and for no other purpose than to strike fear in the hearts of infidels the world over who would dare to slander the prophet of Islam. But that’s not really how terrorism usually works, especially not in Paris, one of the key battlegrounds for Middle East political warfare over the last half-century.
If you’re a terrorist, you typically target Paris not just because you’re an angry disenfranchised Muslim immigrant who believes that your country doesn’t take you or your religion seriously. Rather, it’s because you’re getting paid to stage an operation on behalf of a particular cause or regime. For instance, in 1982 the Syrian Arab Republic bombed the Paris office of a Lebanese magazine that took an anti-Syrian stance in an attack that killed a young Frenchwoman and injured 46 people.
Usually the purpose of terrorist attacks in Paris is to suggest to France itself that it better change its policies in the Middle East. France’s second most vicious terrorist campaign was in the mid 1980s, when the Islamic Republic of Iran made war on Paris. Tehran was mad because the French gave sanctuary to the anti-regime opposition, the Mojahedin e-Khalq, and also because they backed Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war. Most of Iran’s terrorist operations, 15 bombings and attempted bombings that left 13 people dead and nearly 250 people wounded in Paris in 1985 and 1986, were orchestrated by Hezbollah’s Parisian network, led by Tunisian-born Frenchman Fouad Ali Saleh.
In the 1990s, it was Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group (GIA) that campaigned against France, killing eight and wounding hundreds, most spectacularly by bombing a train station. However, at least one former American security official believes that it wasn’t the GIA but really the Algerian intelligence that was behind the violence, with the aim of discrediting the GIA. The French wanted to broker a deal between the regime in Algiers and their Islamist opponents, and the Algerians simply wanted to crush the GIA. The purpose of the campaign, on this reading, was to tell Paris to back off, which it eventually did.
More often than not, Middle East terrorism in Paris is waged by Middle East regimes and their security services for explicit political purposes. Maybe AQAP really is responsible—but that doesn’t exclude the possibility that some regional intelligence agency had a hand in it. After all, virtually every Middle East intelligence service has a major presence in Yemen right now and doubtless many of them have infiltrated AQAP’s ranks.
Maybe, as Amedy Coulibali claimed, he was campaigning on behalf of the Islamic State—whose military leadership consists of Saddam Hussein’s former military and intelligence officers. Maybe Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah have reopened their war on France. After all, while pro-Iran and pro-Assad media outfits have condemned the attacks, they’ve also chided France for its pro-rebel stance in the Syrian civil war. They’re crowing that they warned France many times—if you’re not backing Assad, you’re siding with terrorism, of the Sunni variety— and it’s going to come back and bite you. And now, says the Iranian press, France “is tasting the bitter medicine of its support for terrorism.” The answer, says the pro-Iran and pro-Assad Lebanese media is for France, and other Western countries, to recognize “the need for military and practical intelligence cooperation with the armies of the region, first and foremost, with Syria.”
Who knows who may be complicit in last week’s attacks. As the history of terror in Paris shows, the likely cause wasn’t simply the grievance of an individual or even a community. Rather, it was the patient handiwork of an organization waging political warfare on France for real political gains.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).