Deadliest terrorist attack – Case study

5 The Most Deadly Terrorist Attack in France since WW2 A Case Study

Bataclan attack 13 November 2015

On the evening of Friday, November 13th, 2015, Paris was subjected to a complex co-ordinated terrorist attack from a group claiming allegiance to the Islamic State group. 130 people were killed by the attackers and another 416 were injured making it the most deadly attack in France since the Second World War.

Timeline of the attack:

9:20pm a suicide bomber attempted to enter the Stade de France during a football game. When stopped by security officers at the entrance to the stadium he detonated the device killing 1 person.

9:25pm a team of gunmen launch a series of attacks in bars and restaurants close to the centre of Paris killing 15 and wounding many more. The attackers then left in a car to carry on the attack in a nearby area killing another 24 people.

  • 9:30pm a second suicide bomber blew himself up at another entrance to the Stade de France causing no casualties.
  • 9:40 pm a third suicide bomber blew himself up nearby to the attacks on the bars and restaurants injuring one person. Three attackers burst in to the Bataclan concert hall opening fire on a full capacity crowd of 1500 people. This attack lasted for more than 2 hours killing 89 people and injuring many more. Security forces stormed the building at 12:20am and all 3 attackers were killed by their suicide belts.
  • 9:53pm another suicide bomber detonated his belt near to the Stade de France.

7 of the 9 attackers were immediately dead and a state of emergency was declared for all of France as the manhunt for the remaining 2 attackers began.

  • 15 November French warplanes launched a series of retaliatory strikes against the ISIL HQ in Syria.
  • 18 November French security forces engage the two remaining terrorist attackers in a fierce firefight in an apartment in a Paris suburb killing both.

Police continued to pursue others involved in aiding the attackers and arrested the suspected driver of the bombers in Belgium on March 15 2016. This attacker received a whole life prison sentence and another 19 who had aided and abetted the attack received sentences ranging from 2 years to life.

The attackers were all aligned with the Islamic State organisation (also known as ISIL, ISIS or Daesh) which formed from Al Qaeda. The group was founded in 1999 and rose to prominence in Iraq and expanded into Syria in 2013. IS is a militant fundamentalist Sunni Islamic group and it recruited over 42,000 foreign fighters between 2011 and 2016 [1]

The ringleader of the attack, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was a Belgian national believed to have joined IS in 2013. He was suspected of involvement in numerous terror attacks in Belgium and France prior to the Paris attacks. He left for Syria in 2014 and was convicted in absentia by the Belgian authorities for organising terrorism in 2015. He returned to Europe via Greece possibly concealed amongst other refugees.

Most of the attackers were either killed or brought to justice within a relatively short space of time. However, most of the attackers were known to the authorities before the attack both for petty crimes and for links to radicalised Islamic groups. Many of them had travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight for ISIS returning to France and Belgium using false documentation to evade detection. The question arises then as to how they evaded detection and were able to plan and execute a complex attack requiring guns, explosives and ammunition.

One of the problems for preventing attacks from such people is the complex nature of security intelligence gathering encompassing many different agencies and quite probably also having an international nature. This makes information sharing more difficult and the open nature of borders in the Schengen region makes international movement easier for terrorists and harder for surveillance efforts. The European law enforcement organisation Europol was set up in the 1990s originally focussed against drugs and organised crime but later taking terrorism into its remit and establishing the European Counter Terrorism Centre in 2016. Europol had supported investigations into the 2015 Paris attacks providing information exchange and analysis capabilities. From January 1 2021 the United Kingdom ceased to be a member of the European Union and was, therefore, no longer a member of Europol. This will mean that we lose access to the Schengen Information System and the levels of collaboration that we had as a member state will be reduced.

Before the multiple attacks in Europe the jihadi threat had been underestimated by European authorities and IS were able to develop and recruit supporters. [2] Subsequently more rigorous restrictions and monitoring of public activities of jihadis has been implemented. However, it is clear that terrorist methodologies and procedures are an ever-evolving concept and are adaptable to efforts to contain them.

The Paris attackers had previously been involved in drugs, alcohol, petty crime and other behaviour not really aligned to religious fundamentalism. They had become radicalised for various reasons, however, awakening authorities of the need to prevent vulnerable people being drawn into criminal behaviour. In the UK this gave rise to the government led Prevent programme. The fact that the Paris attackers had experience with IS in Iraq and Syria meant that they had some operational skills which undoubtably helped them execute their attack.

The attack also highlighted the domestic danger of those returning from supporting terrorist groups abroad. Other terrorists groups have similarly sought to travel abroad to gain battlefield experience. For example, US authorities are concerned with white supremacist groups seeking to fight in Ukraine [3]. France subsequently changed its’ constitution in order to remove French citizenship from dual nationals suspected of terrorism involvement in order to reduce this threat.

By launching a co-ordinated attack across multiple locations, the attackers were able to create confusion amongst security agencies and limited resources could not be solely focussed on one area. This was an effective tactic meaning that specialist response teams were dispersed over a wider area diluting their capability and adding to the difficulty of centrally co-ordinating the response.

Good perimeter security had prevented greater casualties in the Stade de France, however, the terrible loss of life at the Bataclan theatre later, replicated in the Manchester Arena bombing, emphasised the vulnerability of crowded public spaces. This is finally leading to statutory obligations being imposed on the operators of publicly accessible spaces, such as the forthcoming Martyn’s Law in the United Kingdom.