Paris attack: ISIS and al-Qaeda are not contained

The notion that the ISIS threat can be contained through an “Iraq first” strategy is a myth

Joyce Karam
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The murderers identified as Cheriff and Said Kouachi striking in the heart of Paris yesterday and killing in cold blood cartoonist Stephane Charbonnier and his colleagues at Charlie Hebdo satire newspaper are no amateurs and fit the profile of extremists from or inspired by notorious groups operating in the Middle East.

Reports from Paris indicate that they might be tied to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), most active in Yemen, with one of them, according to the Associated Press, convicted in 2008 for helping send fighters to aid the heavily-dominated ISIS insurgency in Iraq. These are very alarming developments for French and European officials in highlighting the threat of ISIS and al-Qaeda returnees. Allowing these groups to fester and recruit inside Syria and Yemen is a major threat to European capitals, a stone’s throw away from the so-called Caliphate.


French contingent in ISIS and al-Qaeda

The attack was about Charlie Hebdo, whose provocative cartoons didn’t spare anyone from Kim Jung Un to the Pope to Prophet Muhammad, as much as about these elements striking in the heart of Europe in the most rattling fashion since the London bombings in 2005. Charlie Hebdo’s newsroom was an easy target with minimal security, and one that could ideologically lend the killers solidarity from like-minded radicals who reject the notion of freedom of speech and rule by the sword from Idlib to Mosul.

The attack in France gives more urgency to find political solution for conflicts in Syria and Yemen

Joyce Karam

Information provided so far suggests that Cheriff and Said Kouachi are linked to “a Yemeni terrorist network,” most likely AQAP. The older brother, Cheriff was also reportedly caught in 2005 on his way to join the Iraqi insurgency via Damascus, Syria.

For many reasons, France is amongst Europe’s most vulnerable countries to be targeted by such attacks. It leads Europe in having the largest number of nationals recruited and fighting with ISIS. This number stands at more than 700 French citizens in Syria today according to CNN, many of whom will attempt to return home and possibly wreak havoc through the skills and military training they acquired from ISIS.

The first red flag that Europe encountered from ISIS returnees was in last September and with the arrest of the Frenchman Mehdi Nemmouche in the killing of two Israeli tourists at Brussels Jewish Museum. It was later revealed that Nemmouche had spent a year in Syria. Just last November as well, U.S. airstrikes targeting ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria, allegedly killed David Drugeon, a French bombmaker with the Khorasan group who is reportedly planning attacks against the West and using Syria as a training and testing ground. France’s involvement in airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, in Mali, and in Libya also make it an attractive target for such groups.

France as well has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, standing at more than four million with increasing challenges at assimilating. Laws banning the face veil in 2010 subjected France to direct attack from al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman Zawahiri, who described the move then as a “shameless war” calling on French Muslim women to “ hold on to your are mujahidat (female Jihadist) in the most important battlefield.”

Containment is failing

The attack in France gives more urgency to find political solution for conflicts in Syria and Yemen, having become a magnet for al-Qaeda and ISIS. Containing Syria as U.S. President Barack Obama has attempted in the last three years is falling short in preventing the terrorism threat globally. While the anti-ISIS coalition is making progress in Iraq, ISIS is skillfully moving into Syria, and expanding territory around Aleppo and in the Qalamoun area on the border with Lebanon. Al-Qaeda’s affiliate Nusra which has ties with Yemen’s AQAP has tightened its grip on Northern Syria, dealing a blow to the moderate rebels in Idlib.

The notion that the ISIS threat can be contained through an “Iraq first” strategy is a myth. Syria’s porous border with Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and on the Mediterranean will provide enough routes for ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliated groups to attract fighters from Europe and elsewhere, as it has done in the last two years. Experts estimate the group to have more than 15,000 foreign fighter within its ranks.

In Yemen, where the anti-government Houthi rebels have taken over Sanaa last September, their rise and the weakening of the Yemeni state is giving resurgence for AQAP. Al-Qaeda in Yemen is reaching out to tribal forces and forming alliances to gain ground and fight the Houthis. This is a lethal combination for the West and for the Middle East as a whole and could lead to the breakup of Yemen.

Exerting diplomatic, military and economic leverage to speed up political transitions in Syria and Yemen is crucial to defeating ISIS and AQAP, and blocking the threat from reaching Europe or other countries in the Middle East. What happens in Deir Azzor or Taizz matters beyond Syria and Yemen and is having dire implications on the threat of terrorism worldwide.


Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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