The Islamic State’s Amaq News Agency quickly claimed responsibility for a shooting in the Champs-Élysées shopping area of Paris, France earlier today. At least one policeman was killed and two others injured during the attack.
Amaq’s claim, which identified the assailant by his purported nom de guerre, was released online in Arabic and English within hours of the assault. Citing a supposed “source,” Amaq reported: “Attacker who carried out assault in the area of Champs-Elysées in central Paris is Abu Yusuf al-Baljiki, an Islamic State fighter.”
Al-Baljiki means “the Belgian.” Jihadists have multiple reasons for adopting their chosen aliases, but this type of identifier usually indicates that the terrorist is either from Belgium or lived there at some point.
French press reports have identified the perpetrator as Karim Cheurfi, who was well-known to law enforcement officials. According to L’Express, Cheurfi was convicted of shooting at police officers in 2001. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2003, but his sentence was reduced to 15 years in 2005. Other French media outlets, such as Le Parisien, have documented Cheurfi’s criminal past as well. Assuming the initial reports are accurate, and Cheurfi is responsible for today’s shooting, then his sentence reduction obviously played a role in allowing him to reengage in violence at this time.
It is not yet clear what, if any, direct connection the terrorist had to the Islamic State. As FDD’s Long War Journal has reported in the past, Amaq and other propaganda arms of the self-declared caliphate have repeatedly identified terrorists in the West as the group’s “fighters,” or more commonly as its “soldiers.”
An Islamic State claim of responsibility doesn’t prove that the group had direct ties to the attacker. However, authorities have found that terrorists had digital ties, or were at least inspired by the organization, in a number of cases. Islamic State operatives have also orchestrated a series of plots in the West. In some cases, jihadists have been dispatched to carry out specific operations.
In other instances, jihadists have been “remote-controlled” by operatives residing in Iraq and Syria. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s enterprise maintains a stable of cyber planners who are responsible for directing willing recruits to carry out attacks everywhere from Southeast Asia to the heart of the US. European counterterrorism and intelligence officials discovered a series of these small-scale plots, overseen by Islamic State cyber planners, during the summer of 2016. Rachid Kassim, an Islamic State operative who was targeted in a US airstrike earlier this year, has been tied to string of “remote-controlled” plots in France. The group has directed similar operations elsewhere and has attempted to do so inside the US as well.
The Islamic State networks in France and Belgium have been closely linked for some time. Besides the fact that the two nations border one another, some of the terrorists responsible for the Nov. 13, 2015 assault on Paris were part of a network with deep roots inside Belgium. Several of the terrorists responsible for the Paris raids were either from Belgium, or had resided there. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a logistical point man for the operation, was known as “Abu Umar al-Baljiki.” Several of Abaaoud’s comrades committed grisly executions in the lands of the so-called caliphate before their night of terror in France’s capital. Abaaoud also maintained ties to more than one cell in Belgium.
Europe has been struck several times in recent weeks.
On Mar. 22, a 52 year-old man named Khalid Masood drove his vehicle into a crowd near the British parliament in London. Masood then jumped out of his car and assaulted others with a blade. The Islamic State has repeatedly encouraged followers to carry out this same type of attack. Amaq claimed responsibility the following day, saying the attacker “was a soldier of the Islamic State” and executed “the operation in response to calls to target citizens of coalition nations.”
On Apr. 7, a 39 year-old Uzbek man named Rakhmat Akilov drove a hijacked beer truck into another crowd of people in Stockholm, Sweden. Four people were killed and more than a dozen injured. “We know he has shown sympathies to extreme groups, among them ISIS,” said Jonas Hysing, the national police spokesman, according to CNN. “We won’t comment any further on that.” Akilov’s lawyer subsequently said his client had admitted to committing a “terrorist crime.”
Uzbekistan’s foreign minister, Abdulaziz Kamilov, has since claimed that Akilov was recruited by the Islamic State and “had encouraged other Uzbeks to travel to Syria to fight for the militant group,” according to The New York Times.
However, the Islamic State has not issued a claim of responsibility for the Stockholm attack. Unlike today, Amaq did not release a statement claiming Akilov as one of the group’s own.
Then, on Apr. 11, the tour bus for a German soccer team was hit by roadside bombs in Dortmund. It is not clear who was behind the bombing and there are various theories floating around in the press.
French authorities claimed just earlier this week that they had thwarted an “imminent” terrorist attack in Marseille. Two men were arrested. France’s interior minister, Matthias Fekl, said the pair “intended to commit an attack on French soil in the very short term, which is to say in coming days.” The Financial Times reported that police “found an Uzi sub-machine gun, several pistols, a silencer and ammunition,” as well as TATP explosives, which have been repeatedly used in terror attacks. The police also supposedly confiscated “a homemade grenade, a map of Marseille, an [Islamic State] flag and a copy of the Koran,” in addition to a “Guy Fawkes” mask, which is more emblematic of non-jihadist groups.
Even though the plot in Marseille was foiled, however, France faces a constant stream of threats. That reality was unfortunately made easy to see once again today in Paris.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.