Attack at French stadium shows Islamic State weaknesses

Soccer fans waited on the field at the Stade de France stadium on Friday night. Terrorist suicide bombers failed to gain admission to the stadium, which experts say probably had been the primary goal of the attackers.
Soccer fans waited on the field at the Stade de France stadium on Friday night. Terrorist suicide bombers failed to gain admission to the stadium, which experts say probably had been the primary goal of the attackers. AP

Police suspect Abdelhamid Abaaoud, known for being one of the primary executioners for the Islamic State, was the mastermind behind Friday’s terror attacks in Paris.

But Abaaoud, thought to be 27 years old, has gained another reputation in recent months: His plans often go awry. While the Paris attacks left 129 dead and another 350 injured, the worst terrorist attack in French history, terrorism experts note a key deficiency: what was likely the most ambitious part of the plot, a suicide attack at a crowded soccer game attended by tens of thousands, including President Francois Hollande, failed.

That was not Abaaoud’s first failure. Most famously, an attack that he’s believed to have planned this summer on a high-speed train between Brussels and Paris was thwarted by passengers, particularly three friends from Sacramento, Calif., who were on vacation.

Attacking a major sporting event has been something of a holy grail for terrorists, experts agree. Olympics, World Cups, Super Bowls are all seen as valuable targets because of the television cameras. Friday night’s friendly game between France and Germany was not on that level, but it did feature the reigning world champion Germans, in a stadium that this summer will host the hugely popular European Cup tournament. It was broadcast internationally.

And on the twisted scorecards of terrorists, the Stade de France attack failed: Three terrorists died detonating their suicide belts, but only one innocent passerby was killed in the blasts. An additional 46 people were injured, 15 of them seriously. But it could have been far worse; close to 80,000 people were packed into the stadium. That the bombers couldn’t gain access to the venue and then had no plan afterward shows how poorly the attack was plotted, in the analysis of some experts.

“A stadium is known to be a hard target. There are known security measures in place to stop an attack,” said Magnus Ranstrop, a terrorism expert at the Swedish National Defense College. “They could have planned to overcome these measures. They did not, and when they did not, they didn’t appear to have a Plan B.

“I think sometimes we give them too much credit.”

One piece of planning did meet their needs, Ranstrop said: They planned their attack from the side of the complex that would have had them burst into the stadium in view of the live-action cameras.

But they didn’t get inside the stadium. One of the attackers tried to get in but was turned away because he didn’t have a ticket. Another either was turned away by security because his suicide belt was detected or moved out of the line trying to enter the stadium when he realized that security measures would detect his belt.

The subsequent explosions were spread out over more than half an hour, though all came while the game was being played – when the crowd was safely inside the stadium. The first explosion was deadly, killing the bystander. But the last explosion was near a McDonald’s restaurant that is about a block from the stadium; it did so little damage that the restaurant quickly reopened.

A French journalist studying the damage around the stadium Tuesday noted, “If they’d detonated an hour earlier, it would have been carnage. If they’d waited an hour longer until after the game, when people were streaming out, it could have been devastating. Instead, happily, they chose the time of least damage.”

Experts agree that the stadium was intended to be the signature horror of Friday’s attacks. Instead, it’s become a secondary concern, though it is clear that the attempt has raised concerns for major sporting events around Europe. Germany canceled a national team match in Hannover Tuesday night for what authorities termed a “serious threat.”

The other deaths, experts noted, took place at what are known as soft targets, where people were out enjoying a Friday night. Diners at sidewalk cafes are among the least protected groups of people imaginable. At at least one site, the attackers didn’t even leave their car when they sprayed semiautomatic gunfire into the crowd. The story was the same at the Bataclan, where 89 people died and security was also not a challenge.

“Alas, it’s not that hard to kill lots of people in a city fast with AK-47s and explosives, especially when security is uneven or weak,” Michael O’Hanlon, a national security expert at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, wrote in an email answer to questions.

And while obtaining weapons and coordinating “the time and places of the attack without being caught” required “some care,” O’Hanlon noted, the death toll reflects more the lack of security than the terrorists’ acumen.

Anti-terror police have learned much this year about Abaaoud’s abilities.

Abaaoud is thought to be behind what was to have been an attack on a church in Villejuif, France, on April 19. Instead, one of the attackers, Sid Ahmed Ghlam, 24, accidentally shot himself in the leg and called police for help. He would later admit the plot to attack the church. Documents recovered at that time indicate the plot was made and directed from outside France.

Earlier this year, in a failed attack to which Abaaoud was linked through encrypted documents, he had given an attacker directions to hit an “easy goal,” suggesting “a concert hall . . . this will maximize the number of victims.”

From Syria, Abaaoud supplied cash and general directions, and little more. The planned attacker in that case would tell police that more was coming from Syria. “All I can tell you is that it is going to happen very soon. It was a real factory there, they are trying hard to hit France and Europe,” Reda Hame, a French jihadist, told police during interrogation, according to French media accounts.

Most famously, he’s thought to be behind getting Ayoub El-Khazzani, carrying a bag stuffed with weapons, on an Aug. 21 train between Brussels and Paris. The connections are tenuous, but El-Khazzani is known to have been in close contact with a jihadist group with close ties to Abaaoud, which led investigators to believe Abaaoud was involved in the planning.

That attack was foiled, however, by the three friends from Sacramento: U.S. Airman First Class Spencer Stone, Oregon National Guard Spec. Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler, a Sacramento State University student. The three friends took down El-Khazzani, wrestling his guns away and knocking him unconscious.

Mark Singleton, director of the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague, said in an email that the recent spate of attacks in and around Paris are probably to some extent based on the attention garnered by the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January that left 17 victims dead. And, he noted, France is known to have a large number of fighters who have traveled to, and returned from, Syria. In all, there are thought to be more than 5,000 European Union residents who have gone to Syria, and hundreds who have returned.

Still, he said the January attack proved it was easy to kill quickly in a “hit and run” attack. Hitting the Stade de France was much more difficult.

“It was a hard target, but also a hugely symbolic one, with – potentially – massive impact, especially with the president there,” Singleton said. “In retrospect, they missed an opportunity.”

Singleton said it’s still unclear why. “Normally, you often see a bomb being detonated, followed by another once a large crowd has gathered. That didn’t happen this time.”

Why it didn’t awaits fuller investigation. “Perhaps the bomb belts themselves went off at the wrong moment, or malfunctioned,” Singleton said. “One can only speculate at this moment.”

Matthew Schofield: @mattschodcnews