ISIL’s strategy changed with they attacked Paris. Now, the group has added ‘legitimacy,’ experts say

The deadly attacks in the heart of Paris Friday night seemed to signal a profound departure in ISIL’s strategy, experts said Sunday.

No longer is the militant group just focused on establishing a caliphate in the Sunni heartland in Iraq and , it is turning its lens outward with the aim of inflicting mass civilian casualties abroad.

Rather than being carried out by a bunch of “lone-wolf” sympathizers, the massacre in Paris was well-coordinated and likely had some level of involvement from the group’s senior leadership, the experts said.

“We’re seeing a strategy shift,” said Christian Leuprecht, a national security expert at Queen’s University and the Royal Military College of .

“This was not a lone-wolf operation. It was clearly organized. It was deliberately meant to overwhelm security forces. … This was not a bunch of guys who woke up one morning and said, ‘were going to do something.’”

Raqqa Media Center / Associated Press, File photoRaqqa Media Center / Associated Press, File photoAn undated image of ISIL extremists posted by the Raqqa Media Center in Syria.

Citing American and French officials, the New York Times reported Sunday evidence has emerged the attackers communicated with ISIL members in Syria prior to the attacks, which killed at least 132 people.

Prior to the Paris attacks, the radical group had also claimed responsibility for the downing of a Russian jetliner in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula that killed 224 people and twin suicide bombings in Beirut that killed 43 people.

Different theories have emerged as to why ISIL is now taking on more operations abroad. Some say the group feels strong and emboldened. Others say it’s because it is weak and desperate.

They wanted to show they are the new al-Qaida … that this is going to be the new organization that everyone has to be part of

Hassan Hassan, an associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, told The Associated Press ISIL is still interested in building within its self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria, but it is also keen to establish itself as a “global leader of jihad.”

“They wanted to show they are the new al-Qaida … that this is going to be the new organization that everyone has to be part of. The old organization is dying,” he said.

But it’s not like ISIL is a business that has had a bunch of success and is now looking to expand by launching terror attacks, said Ray Boisvert, a former assistant director at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

Rather, the escalation in violence abroad likely is more an “act of desperation,” he said. ISIL is feeling squeezed from the ongoing bombing campaign from U.S.-led coalition forces and from the loss of territory to Kurdish forces, so, in response, it is attempting a counter-offensive in the hopes that it’ll slow things down and make other countries think twice about fighting them.

“One of the top motives is to relieve the pressure,” Boisvert said. “It’s because they are so under stress.”

Leuprecht agreed. Until now, ISIL has deliberately “not stirred up a hornet’s nest in the West,” knowing that doing so would likely provoke further military intervention.

But now the group can “see the writing on the wall,” especially as top diplomats from the U.S., Russia and other countries meet in Vienna to hammer out details of a ceasefire in Syria and a transition to a new government, Leuprecht said.

Until things are finalized, ISIL and its affiliates may take advantage of this “sweet spot” to launch further attacks, he said.

“I’m concerned ISIL is fully going to exploit that (sweet spot) as long as they can because they know soon they won’t be able to act with such expanse and impunity.”

FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty ImagesFRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty ImagesPeople hug each other before being evacuated by bus, near the Bataclan concert hall.

In certain respects, ISIL is more dangerous than al-Qaida because whereas al-Qaida was more selective in who it targeted, ISIL is more indiscriminate, Stephane Lacroix, a professor at the Paris School of International Affairs, told the Wall Street Journal.

chose symbolic targets,” Lacroix said. “But Islamic State (ISIL) views this as an almost existential conflict, which translates into far more indiscriminate methods of action. And that makes its attacks much more difficult to stop.”

In claiming responsibility for the attack, ISIL’s propaganda arm warned that France and other nations will continue to be targeted and that the “scent of death will not leave their nostrils as long as they take part in the crusader campaign.”

“This is just the beginning of the storm.”

Michael Zekulin, a terrorism researcher at the University of Calgary, said he’s a bit skeptical of the rhetoric. However, he is worried about the possibility of copycats.

Friday night’s attacks boosted ISIL’s legitimacy and sent a message to supporters: no longer can al-Qaida lay sole claim to having successfully launched an attack on a Western democratic nation.

“Big for recruiting,” he said.

Experts, however, said they weren’t sure the attacks necessarily called for a re-think of the U.S.-led policy of containing ISIL. Taking a more aggressive stance could feed the narrative of western “Crusader” interference in the Middle East.

“It’s thrown everything into disarray. No doubt about that,” Zekulin said.

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