Officials have reported that a total of twenty-three people have been arrested and dozens of weapons seized in a series of raids that occurred overnight and which targeted suspected Islamist militants across France. The crackdown follows multiple attacks that targeted bars, restaurants, a concert hall and a stadium in Paris on Friday, in which 129 people were killed and over 300 were left injured. Reports have also indicated that a police operation is underway in Brussels, Belgium, with on the ground sources reporting hearing shots and explosions in the district of Molenbeek.
Late Friday evening, gunmen and bombers carried out a wave attacks that targeted restaurants, a concert hall and an area near the Stade de France in northern Paris, where France and Germany were playing a friendly football match. At 2120 local time, a suicide bomber activated an explosive belt near the gate of the Stade de France in the northern suburb of Saint-Denis. At the time of the incident, the stadium was packed with spectators, including French President Francois Hollande and the German foreign minister. Officials have disclosed that the explosion killed the bomber and a passer-by. At 2125, in the 10th district of Paris, at the crossroads of rue Bichat and Rue Alibert, gunmen shot at clients who were sitting on the terraces of the Le Carillon bar and at the Petit Cambodge restaurant. Fifteen people were killed and ten were severely injured. At 2130, outside the Stade de France, a second suicide bomber detonated a bomb, killing only himself while at 2132, gunmen opened fire in front of the A La Bonne Biere bar, which is located at the intersection of rue Fontaine au Roi and rue Faubourg du Temple in the 11th district. Five people were killed and eight were severally injured. At 2136, gunmen killed nineteen people who were sitting on the terrace of the restaurant La Belle Equipe in nearby rue de Charone. Nine people sustained severe injuries, while around 2140, a suicide bomber killed himself inside the restaurant Le Comptoir Voltaire, which is located on boulevard Voltaire, also in the 11th district. One person was severely injured. At 2140, a car stopped in front of the nearby Bataclan concert hall. Several gunmen entered the theatre during a concert of the Eagles of Death Metal rock group and shot indiscriminately at the crowd. Around 89 people were killed and many were left injured. Sources have reported that the attackers made verbal references to Syria and Iraq. At 2135 a third suicide bomber killed himself near the Stade de France. On Saturday, at 0020, security forces launched an assault on the Bataclan concern hall in a bid to try and free those inside. Three of the attackers inside the concert hall are killed, one of whom is shot, while the remaining two kill themselves using their explosive belt.
On Saturday, the so-called Islamic State (IS) group released an official statement, claiming responsibility for Friday’s massacre. In the statement, IS indicated that the attacks were due to France’s policies pertaining to Syria, and its participation in coalition air strikes. IS further warned France that such attacks will continue until the country changes is stance.
IS’ threat however has not forced France to rethink its strategy and position in combatting the jihadist group. While France has been bombing IS positions in Iraq and Syria, as part of a US-led operation, for months, Friday’s attacks have resulted in Paris vowing to destroy the group. Underlining its resolve, French jets on Sunday launched their largest raids in Syria to date, hitting the group’s stronghold in Raqqa. A statement released by the French Defense Ministry reported that “the raid…including 10 fighter jets, was launched simultaneously from the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. Twenty bombs were dropped,” adding that amongst the targets were a munitions depot and training camp. IS has since issued a statement saying that the raid targeted empty locations and that there were no casualties.
In the days since the tragedy, numerous details pertaining to the attack and those behind it have emerged. On Monday, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls disclosed that the attacks had been organized from Syria, further adding that the authorities believe that new terror attacks are being planned in France as well as in other European countries. There have also been numerous reports of arrests of those involved in Friday’s attack as officials in France carried out more than 150 raids on militant targets early on Monday. According to the French Prime Minister, “we are making use of the legal framework of the state of emergency to question people who are part of the radical jihadist movement…and all those who advocate hate of the republic.” Police sources have reported that properties in the Paris suburb of Bobigny, as well as the cities of Grenoble, Lyon and Toulouse, were targeted. Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve has reported that 23 people have been arrested and dozens of weapons were seized, including a Kalashnikov assault rifle and rocket launchers. More than 100 people have been placed under house arrest.
Over the weekend, officials identified five of the attackers, while on Monday, another two were named by the Paris prosecutor.
- Salah Abdeslam (26) – urgently sought by police
- Mohammed Abdeslam – arrested in Belgium; his lawyer confirmed on Monday that he has since been released without charge, proving his innocence. His brothers are Brahim Abdeslam, killed during the attacks, and Salah, who remains on the run.
- Brahim Abdeslam (31) – named as attacker who died near Bataclan concert hall
- Omar Ismail Mostefai (29) – from near Paris; died in attack on Bataclan
- Bilal Hadfi (20) – named as attacker who died at the Stade de France
- Ahmad al-Mohammad (25) – from Idlib, Syria; died at the Stade de France. While Al-Mohammed is the name on a Syrian passport that was found with the remains of one of the attackers, the man’s identify has not yet been verified. What has been confirmed is that his fingerprints match those that were taken by Greek authorities after he arrived with migrants on the island of Leros in October 2015.
- Samy Amimour (28) – from near Paris; suicide bomber at Bataclan. He was said to be facing terrorism charges in France. He was placed under judicial supervision while under investigation for terrorist conspiracy – he planned to go to Yemen. An international arrest warrant was issued against him when he broke bail in autumn 2013. Three of his relatives were amongst those detained early Monday morning.
Officials have also launched investigations in Brussels, specifically in the district of Molenbeek, which has a reputation as being a haven for jihadists. Investigators are also reported to be focusing on a Belgian of Moroccan descent, who is described as the possible mastermind of the attacks. Abdelhamid Abaoud, 27, lived in the same neighbourhood of Brussels as two of the attackers. He is now believed to be based in Syria, where he has risen through the ranks of IS. Police have also named Brussels-born Salah Abdeslam, 26, as a key suspect, and a manhunt is currently underway. He was reportedly stopped by officers in the wake of the attacks while crossing into Belgium however police let him go. Belgian authorities are confident that he is in the Brussels area.
25 April marked the 33rd annual Sinai Liberation day in Egypt, celebrating the return of the peninsula to the Egyptians in 1982. During a ceremony, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi saluted the residents of the region, and the sacrifices of the armed forces in the Sinai Peninsula. He announced the government’s new plans for development in Sinai, including the development of new cities, in particular, New Rafah and New Ismailia. Finally, the president expressed hope that these projects would create jobs for youths in the region.
Despite the positive message delivered by Sisi, the story in Sinai has been a troubled one in recent years. Since 2013, armed forces have struggled to maintain security in the region. Attacks against security forces in North Sinai have spiked to almost daily levels since the ouster of Islamist former President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Egypt’s army, heavily reinforced in the region, has regularly declared arrests, confiscation, and deaths of militants in an effort to quell the operations in the region. In November, the most notorious militant group in the region, Ansar Beit al Maqdis, declared allegiance to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The new cities planned by the Egyptian government are the result of forced relocation of residents who live on the border with Gaza. A week earlier, Egypt’s Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab issued a ordering the isolation and evacuation of more areas surrounding Rafah in North Sinai. This expands the current buffer zone that was implemented by Egyptian security forces on the border with Gaza. Initially the evacuation was to clear all homes within 500 metres of the border, for fear that homes in the immediate vicinity would be used to cover underground tunnels which could smuggle individuals or contraband into the country. Hundreds of tunnels have bene flooded and destroyed. Currently, the border clearance is expanded to a one-kilometre-wide and 14-kilometre-long buffer zone on the eastern border of North Sinai as part of its fight against militants in the peninsula. The announcements of the buffer zone in recent months have caused the evacuation of hundreds of people, and the demolition of hundreds of houses. Mahlab’s announcement included a promise that evacuees would receive alternative housing and reparations, and a warning that state would confiscate the property of anyone who resisted the evacuation. The evacuations, with little notice, have raised the ire of local residents and caused human rights organisations to speak out against Sisi’s policies.
Meanwhile, on Saturday Egypt extended a state of emergency imposed on parts of northern Sinai. The initial state of emergency was put in place late last year after Islamist militants stepped up attacks in the peninsula bordering Israel, Gaza and the Suez Canal. In October, 33 security personnel were killed in an attack at a checkpoint in northern Sinai, one of the largest attacks to occur in the region. The attack was claimed by Ansar Beit al Maqdis, who seeks to topple Sisi’s government, but largely focuses their attacks on police and security forces in North Sinai. The state of emergency was extended for another three months in January. The current extension is to last for three months, and will impact Rafah, al-Arish, Sheik Zuweid and surrounding areas. It also extends a night-time curfew in place in the same areas.
In the midst of a growing battle against militants in Sinai and throughout the country, last month the US announced that it would lift the ban of the supply of military equipment to Egypt. The ban was put in place when Morsi was overthrown in 2011. The White House said it would release the equipment and “modernise” the way it provided military aid to Egypt, including a greater focus on counterterrorism, border security, maritime security and Sinai security. President Obama directed the release of 12 Lockheed Martin F-16 aircraft, 20 Boeing Harpoon missiles, and up to 125 M1A1 Abrams tank kits made by General Dynamics. With an influx of weapons, the mass relocation of residents, and intensified battles against militants in the region, Egypt hopes to see a second liberation in Sinai.
On Monday, France mobilized 10,000 troops to boost security across the country in the wake of last week’s deadly attacks. The increased security comes as more information on the attackers and their links to terrorist organizations surfaces. Questions are mounting as to how the attackers slipped through the intelligence services’ net. French authorities are now carrying out an investigation into last week’s attacks.
Security Boosted Across France
France on Monday announced an unprecedented deployment of thousands of troops and police in order to boost security at “sensitive” sites across the country. At an emergency security meeting, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced “we have decided…to mobilize 10,000 men to protect sensitive sites in the whole country from tomorrow (Tuesday) evening,” adding “this is the first time that our troops have been mobilized to such an extent on our soil.” Close to 5,000 police officers will also be deployed to guard 700 Jewish schools as well as places of worship. France’s alert level on Monday remained at its highest possible as French officials sought security answers.
The increased security presence comes as a French police source reported Saturday that law enforcement officers across France have been told to erase their social media presence and to carry their weapons at all times because terror sleeper cells have been activated over the last 24 hours in the country. According to the source, Amedy Coulibaly, a suspect killed Friday during the deadly hostage siege at a kosher market, had reportedly made several phone calls regarding the targeting of police officers in France. Saturdays’ development was just one of several as France begins to investigate a possible major intelligence failure.
Investigations into Intelligence Failures
France on Monday turned its attention to sealing security holes that have been blamed for failing to prevent the deadliest terrorist attack on the country in half a century. Last week’s attacks were a major intelligence failure, but they have also demonstrated how this new style of terrorism is proving to be a challenge for even the best intelligence agencies.
President Francois Hollande will chair a crisis meeting with cabinet ministers on Monday in order to discuss security measures after the shootings raised questions about how the attackers were able to slip from the radar of French intelligence services. Reports surfaced Saturday that brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi had been under watch by French officials, however that several despite red flags, authorities there lost interest in them. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has admitted that there were “clear failings” after it emerged that brothers Said, 34, and Cherif Kouachi, 32, had been on a US terror watch list “for years. Both brothers, as well as Amedy Coulibaly, 32, had a history of extremism and were known to French intelligence.
Said was known to have travelled to Yemen in 2011, where he received weapons training from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). French authorities had placed him under surveillance in November 2011 however they terminated this surveillance in June 2014 when French security services deemed him no longer dangerous. According to a senior Yemeni national security official, Said Kouachi entered Yemen multiple times with an officially issued visa. According to the official, “Said was not being watched during the duration of his stay in Yemen because he was not on the watch list,” adding that at the time, Yemen’s Western allies had not raised concerns about him. His brother Cherif was also a known jihadist who was convicted in 2008 of being involved in a network sending fighters to Iraq. While French intelligence officials believe that there is a strong possibility that Cherif also travelled to Yemen for a short trip in 2011, separately from his brother, surveillance of Cherif was terminated at the end of 2013 when his phone calls suggested that he had disengaged with violent extremism and was instead focused on counterfeiting clothing and shoes. Meanwhile Amedy Coulibaly was a repeat criminal offender who had been convicted for extremist Islamist activity. French prosecutors have indicated that Coulibaly, who killed four people at a kosher market on Friday, was also involved in the shooting of a jogger near Paris on Wednesday, the day of the attack on a magazine that kicked off the terror spree. Prosecutors have indicated that they have linked shell cases found in the eastern Paris town of Fontenay-aux-Roses, where the jogger was shot and severely wounded, to a Tokarev gun that Coulibaly carried at the kosher market on Friday.
News that all three suspects were known to French intelligence also came as a video circulated on the Internet on Sunday depicting a man appearing to be Coulibaly pledging allegiance to Islamic State and its self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-baghdadi. In the video, Coulibaly, who appears in front of a small Islamic State flag, indicated that he synchronized his actions with the Kouachi brothers. In the video, he is seen exercising outdoors near a brick building, followed by shots of automatic weapons, pistols and ammunition laid out on a wooden floor. Coulibaly also describes the Charlie Hebdo attackers as his “brothers” and states that he gave them money to finish purchasing supplies. Sources have indicated that Islamic State is responsible for releasing the video, which adds further evidence of a possible connection between the terrorist attacks and the radical terrorist group that has taken over large areas of land in Syria and Iraq. Coulibaly’s mother and sisters have condemned his actions, stating, “we hope there will not be any confusion between these odious acts and the Muslim religion.”
US on Alert
On Monday, the New York City Police Department along with other law enforcement personnel responded to a threat from ISIS after someone re-released a September 2014 message that tells followers to “rise up and kill intelligence offices, police offices, soldiers and civilians.” Officials in the US however have noted that they are currently not aware of any specific threats to the US.
Also on Monday, Turkey’s state-run Anatolian News Agency citied Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stating that the wanted partner of one of the gunmen behind the terror attack in France, was in Turkey five days before the killings, adding that she crossed the border into Syria on 8 January.
In the wake of the two hostage crises on Friday, French authorities launched a search for 26-year-old Hayat Boumeddiene after French anti-terrorist police killed her partner Amedy Coulibaly. On its website, Anatolian cited Turkey’s Foreign Minister as stating in an interview that she had arrived in Istanbul from Madrid on 2 January. According to Cavusoglu, “there is footage (of her) at the airport. Later on, she stayed at a hotel with another person and crossed into Syria on January 8. We can tell that based on telephone records.” Cavusoglu stated that the 26-year-old, who married Coulibaly in an Islamic ceremony, stayed at a hotel in Kadikoy in Istanbul and was accompanied by another person. She then moved onto the south-eastern Turkish city of Sanliurfa and then to Syria however Turkish authorities have not clarified whether she travelled to Syria on her own. Contrary to earlier speculation that she had been involved in the Paris killings, those dates would effectively put Boumeddiene in Turkey before the attacks in Paris, leaving for Syria while the attackers were still on the loose. Cavusoglu indicated that as soon as Turkey had determined the whereabouts of Boumeddiene, it passed the information to French authorities. Interior Minister Efkan Ala has indicated that Turkey received no request to deny access to Boumeddiene, stating “the entry of individuals to Turkey could be blocked based on information from the originating countries saying this person’s entry could be problematic.” Sources have indicated that Turkey did not arrest Boumeddiene because of a lack of timely intelligence from France. While western countries have long accused Turkey of not doing enough to stem the flow of jihadists who are seeking to join Islamic State fighters in neighbouring Syria, Ankara has insisted that it has now stepped up frontier security, noting that the West also has a responsibility to share intelligence.
19 November– Fighters loyal to the extremist group ISIS have taken control of Derna, Libya. The city, with a population of nearly 100,000, rests near the Egyptian border and approximately 200 miles from the EU border with Greece.
The Libyan wing of ISIS refers to itself as the “Barqa” provincial division of the Islamic State. Sources believe that there are approximately 800 ISIS affiliates in the region, operating from six camps and a facility in the Green Mountains. It is believed that at least 300 among them are Libyan fighters who left for Syria and formed part of the al-Battar Brigade which fought in Deir Ezzor, Syria and Mosul, Iraq. The group is believed to be operating a training facility in the Green Mountains for extremists in North Africa. Evidence suggests that fighters have also expanded their presence westward along the Libyan coast. Chapters are known to exist in al Bayda, Benghazi, Sirte, al-Khums and Tripoli.
ISIS supporters have taken advantage of the sustained chaos in Libya that has been unchecked since the 2011 removal of Moammar Gadhafi. Currently, two governments operate in the country and battles regularly erupt between extremist groups and Libyan security forces throughout the nation.
The Barqa branch of ISIS has administrative control over Derna, including controlling the courts, education, and the local radio. In September, ISIS leader Abu Bakar al Baghdadi deployed senior aide Abu Nabil al Anbari to Derna to orchestrate the takeover. In Libya, Anbari enlisted the help of Abu al-Baraa el-Azdi, a Saudi imam who is one of Derna’s top religious judges. In early November a group called “Mujahideen of Libya” swore allegiance to Baghdadi, and intend to operate across the nation. Baghdadi called upon supporters to join the “newest administrative region of the Islamic caliphate.” An audio message released by the group last week threatened the “the secularists and parliamentarians and their pillars from the police and army,” adding, “We have prepared for you from the most bitter of cups, and the worst of deaths.”
The Derna group has already been believed to be active in the region. Last week, the bodies of three known anti-ISIS activists were found beheaded in the region, and the group is suspected of a suicide bombing in Tobruk, where the internationally recognised Libyan government has made its temporary home. The bombing killed one and wounded 14. It is believed that the ISIS supporters also conducted a car bombing near Labraq Air Force base in Al-Bayda, killing four. An ISIS-linked Twitter account indicates that the Tripoli chapter of ISIS supporters was responsible for car bomb attacks last week near the Egyptian and UAE embassies.
Analysts believe ISIS control in Derna could be viable in the short term. Smuggling and trafficking routes known to be operational in Libya could provide them with the ability to fund themselves. Derna, has been known to be a stronghold for Islamic extremism. It is unlikely that residents will push back against ISIS without support, particularly as tribal members in the region have affiliated themselves with the group.
However Libyan security forces are battling the stronghold. Last week, Libya’s air force conducted bombings over ISIS held zones in Derna, striking five positions, including a command centre and training camp. It is believed that six were killed and 20 injured. It is likely that regional forces will take action in limiting the threat from permeating their borders.
13 November– A seventeen-minute video released by extremist group ISIS today features a message from their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In the video, the so called ‘caliph’ issued a call to his supporters to “erupt volcanoes of jihad.” The recording has been qualified as “authentic and recent” by counterterrorism consultancy groups. The video was shared across jihadist websites comes days after social media was ablaze with rumours that Baghdadi had been injured or killed in a coalition led air-strike. It is unknown when the video was recorded, but it does make reference to the Egyptian militant group Ansar Beit al Maqdis, a Sinai based group that has been responsible for targeting Egyptian security forces since 2013. In recent months, an Ansar Beit al Maqdis spokesman stated that the group was receiving advice from ISIS; the group officially pledged allegiance to Baghdadi in October. Baghdadi’s message says, “O soldiers of the Islamic State, continue to harvest the soldiers. Erupt volcanoes of jihad everywhere. Light the Earth with fire.” Baghdadi also directed his attention to the US-led coalition bombing campaigns over Iraq and Syria. Calling the campaigns unsuccessful, Baghdadi said, “America and its allies are terrified, weak, and powerless,” and adding that ISIS fighters would “never abandon fighting…They will be triumphant, even if only one man of them is left.” Baghdadi also announced that the “caliphate” he created over the summer would expand across the Arab world, and called on supporters of ISIS to conduct attacks in Saudi Arabia, targeting ruling leaders and Shiites. Baghdadi described Saudi leaders as “the head of the snake.” As a measure of the video’s newness, Baghdadi makes mention of US President Barack Obama’s announcement that the US would deploy an additional 1,500 troops to Iraq. Obama’s decision was announced after the air strike on Mosul that sparked the rumours of Bagdadi’s injuries. In recent days, there have been additional pledges of allegiance to Baghdadi from militant groups in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. Just prior to the video’s release, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel testified before a House Armed Services Committee hearing about the new war. “Since I testified before this committee two months ago, our campaign against ISIL has made progress. ISIL’s advance in parts of Iraq has stalled, and in some cases been reversed, by Iraqi, Kurdish and tribal forces supported by U.S. and coalition airstrikes.” Hagel stated that the war against ISIS will intensify: “As Iraqi forces build strength, the tempo and intensity of our coalition’s air campaign will accelerate in tandem.”