14 minutes past 10 PM on Friday the 13th of November, a news push alert makes my mobile beep just as I had removed my makeup and was to call it a day at the after anchoring the prime evening news at TV 2, the largest commercial TV channel in Norway. The news revealed that several people had been shot and killed in a restaurant in Paris. Barely 12 minutes later, more news arrives. This time imparting information about explosions at Stade de France, the stadium. The telephone beeps again, notifying me about a shooting incident. I fetch a suit jacket and return to the newsroom.
The following night was to be marked by chaos, grief, panic and shock. We didn’t know the extent of the attacks, we didn’t know what had happened, nor the number of casualties. Yet, during these initial stages we realize this is alarming, and that it’s big, due to the spike of casualties and because the reports diverge. It bears witness to a chaotic situation on the ground. I sit inside the TV studio and develop gooseflesh as the live pictures flicker across the screen while I describe to the viewers what we’re looking at. Our suspicions are validated when the number of casualties soars from a few dozens to more than hundred.
ISIS is responsible
The French president, François Hollande, says that the attack is a declaration of war, and that the terrorist organisation ISIS is responsible. ISIS issues a parallel and confirmative statement the next morning.
The terrorist attacks in Paris are the most sophisticated and well-orchestrated terrorist attacks on European soil – and one of the most bloody and devastating in modern times. Eyewitness accounts sketch out how the terrorists systematically proceeded inside the big concert hall in Paris in which most of the victims were killed. Young, attired in black, and unmasked terrorist cried Allahu Akbar, and shot their victims one by one. Those who managed to escape say they left a war zone behind them, a bloodbath, and that they tripped over dead bodies. They were gathered to listen to the metal band Eagles of Death perform.
Of the large terrorist attacks in Europe after World War II, only the Madrid attack has claimed more lives. Co-ordinated bombs killed 191 people in the midst of the rush hours. The brain behind this operation was the founder of ISIS, the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, as I write in my book recently published in Norway, The ISIS Threat.
Zarqawi was killed in an American air raid in 2006, but his legacy, the ISIS terror organisation, prevails in order to take human lives. The terror organisation employs more brutal measures than Al-Qaeda does, and it defies to operate with geographical boundaries in its territorial aims. They wage war for a world-encompassing caliphate. ISIS uses terror to achieve political aims. All of whom disagree can be put to death. That, too, includes Muslims who aren’t terrorists. ISIS applies sectarian violence on the ground in Syria and Iraq, and resorts to the mobilization scheme against the Assad regime as a formula on how to recruit further. Brutality has come to be its hallmark.
One may claim that a free society never will be able to fully protect itself against solo terrorists, because not even the security services are capable of accessing an individual’s mind. Still, the Paris attacks were planned over a long time span and involved several terrorists from various chain-of-command levels; likely preparations and orchestration from within Syria, too, as well as personnel operating on the ground in France. The complexity of the attack was exposed just when the suicide bombers and riflemen struck simultaneously, in the same city, in different parts of the city.
Why weren’t the perpetrators spotted? France has lost more individuals to ISIS than any other European country. According to a report from The French Senate last April at least 1430 of the more than 3000 European ISIS fighters are supposedly French.
Another question is how the terrorists gained access to weapons in a country that retains strict gun control laws. The terrorists used suicide bombers and AK-47 Kalashnikov automatic rifles. It implies that the terrorists had connections to and contacts within the criminal underworld in France, who possibly assisted the terrorists and provided them with equipment. This enterprise wasn’t carried out by youngsters who had been radicalized overnight, it had been prepared for a long time and necessitated a vast and extensive network, with jihadis smuggled into Europe hidden amongst refugees.
The attacks demonstrate to us that ISIS engages in political games of the most barbaric kind, with supporters and connections that persistently manage to keep under the radars of European intelligence agencies which remain on high-alert ascribed to the terrorist attacks and the recent expansion of ISIS.
On Thursday at night-time, European security services, spearheaded by the Italian counter-terrorism police, launched a major crackdown that led to 17 apprehensions in several European countries. They asserted that it was one of the most successful clampdowns on terrorists. Among the suspects was Mullah Krekar, the one-time leader of Ansar al-Islam in Iraq, and came to Norway as refugee in 1991. He allegedly was the main figure of a terror network which he according to Italian anti-terror police ran from his prison cell in Norway. Italian authorities did years of investigation that eventually prompted the apprehensions. Yet, apparently they failed to detect the operation in Paris.
A significant number of ISIS supporters wrote in French on social media to celebrate and praise the attacks. They use French deliberately, and not just Arabic. The choice of language is a demonstration of power. ISIS wishes to emphasise their existence in France, and that the threat may well come from within the country.
On my way out of TV 2 the following morning, the receptionist informs me that they were overwhelmed by harassing telephone calls directed towards Muslims. I know I step out facing a Europe that awakens to a new and different day encapsulated in novel grief and shock; how to tackle this will become one of the greatest challenges in time yet to come. The pope has averred that the attack is just one part of a World War III.