Paris attacks: President Obama and Secretary Kerry pledge support for France
The Islamic State claimed responsibility Saturday for the multiple attacks that killed at least 129 people across Paris Friday, issuing both written and audio statements that promised that Friday’s violence was only the “first of the storm.”
If confirmed as genuine, and all indications are that they were, the statements would make Friday’s coordinated violence the first major operation by the group outside of an area where it maintains a significant presence.
The Islamic State claim came as French authorities struggled to put together what took place Friday night, and security officials worried that the network that supported, possibly numbering as many as 50, was still at large and plotting additional attacks.
Police arrested one of the people thought to be involved in the attack trying to drive back into Belgium, where three of the dead attackers are known to have lived. In addition, Belgian police “made several arrests” of those suspected of involvement in the terror plot, according to French media reports.
French officials used the fingerprints of one of the dead attackers to identify him as a 30-year-old French national from the Paris suburb of Courcouronnes who had been previously been flagged as having extremist ties.
And Nikos Toskas, the Greek minister for citizen protection, said that a Syrian passport found near the bodies of two suicide bombers had been recorded as entering Europe through the island of Leros as a refugee. The minister noted that it was not clear that the passport belonged to an attacker.
The death toll was expected to rise. An estimated 352 people had been wounded in the attacks, at least 99 of them critically. Medical officials called for off-duty doctors to report for work at hospitals treating the wounded.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said that Americans were among the wounded. He would not say if any had been killed, but French news reports said at least one American student had died.
The claim of responsibility was released on an encrypted online channel previously used by the group, and the banners and accompanying Quranic verses conformed with the group’s previous announcements of a major attack in Tunisia on a beach resort.
The logo referred to the group as The Islamic State of France. The statement was released in French and said the attacks were revenge for both French military participation in the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition and over perceived insults to the Prophet Mohammed, a reference to January’s attack on a French satirical magazine prone to mocking Islamic by gunmen from the group’s rival jihadists, al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.
Multiple analysts noted that the direct targeting of civilians more or less randomly based on the venues – which themselves were picked with obvious care – appeared in line with a previous Islamic State attack in Tunisia, which killed scores of mostly Britons on holiday. The analysts noted that al Qaida and its affiliates usually target political, military or economic targets.
A Belgian security official told McClatchy that such an attack probably required a support network of as many as 50 people, most of whom were still at large. All eight of Friday’s attackers are believed to have died, seven by detonating suicide vests after attacking bars, cafes and a music concert with automatic weapons. The French government said police killed the eighth attacker.
“Eight brothers carrying explosive belts and guns targeted areas in the heart of the French capital that were specifically chosen in advance: the Stade de France during a match against Germany which that imbecile François Hollande was attending; the Bataclan where hundreds of idolaters were together in a party of perversity as well as other targets in the 10th, 11th and 18th arrondissement,” said the statement.
“France and those who follow its path must know that they remain the principal targets of the Islamic State.”
It also referred to the French capital as a “capital of prostitution and obscenity,” and directly targeted entertainment and nightlife venues.
Witnesses described the attackers as very specific and methodical in both selecting the targets and in executing victims, pausing to reload as they shot individual victims. They waited to detonate their explosive vests only as police closed in.
French President Francois Hollande Saturday described the attacks as an “act of war” in a released statement that openly vowed revenge.
“What happened yesterday in Paris and in Saint Denis is an act of war and this country needs to make the right decisions to fight this war,” he said. “This act committed by the terrorist army, Islamic State, is against who we are, against a free country that speaks to the whole world.”
“It is an act of war prepared and planned outside, with outside involvement which this investigation will seek to establish. It is an act of absolute barbarism. France will be ruthless in its response to Islamic State,” he added.
Analysts suggested the worst terror attack in modern French history was likely to trigger a massive French campaign to find the organizers before they mount another operation.
To equip eight well-armed attackers with automatic weapons that are illegal in France and to manufacture the explosive vests the attackers wore, to say nothing of planning an operation that spanned six locations in eastern Paris, likely required a substantial network whose members likely are still at large.
The Belgian security official, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to talk to reporters, said that his own security forces were on high alert due to the hundreds of Belgians who have traveled to Syria to fight with the Islamic State.
The official described the Paris attacks as “well planned and clearly part of a substantial support network that could easily span multiple countries,” due to the ease of crossing borders in the European Union.
He suggested as many as 50 people were involved in the logistics of the operation.
He also raised concerns about the nature of the explosives used in the attacks, saying if French authorities determine they are military grade, then the possibility would exist that they had been carried into Europe by people disguised as refugees that have recently flooded the continent.
France, however, has no lack of willing militants with hundreds of its citizens having joined the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. France also has a long history of militancy among its sizable ethnic Arab population and no end of perceived grievances, from the civil war in Algeria to its intervention in Mali in 2012 to prevent an al Qaida affiliate from overrunning the country.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. @mitchprothero