Michael Zekulin teaches political science at the University of Calgary.
France is reeling from yet another terrorist incident. While few concrete details have emerged, one obvious fact cannot be ignored: This latest attack was not the work of a "lone-wolf" or a pair of individuals. This attack was sophisticated and coordinated, targeting multiple sites simultaneously, designed to create mass casualties, chaos and destruction.
It represents a stark departure from the types of attacks France and the West more generally have faced over the past two years. As the world mourns this tragic, cowardly, and horrific attack, we need to ask ourselves two important questions in an effort to assess what this attack means moving forward.
First, and most importantly, who is responsible for this attack? ISIS has claimed responsibility but were those responsible home-grown or are they returnees – French nationals who travelled to fight in Syria and Iraq?
The key distinction here is that home-grown individuals are generally identified as having very little if any connection to ISIS beyond the fact that they are "inspired" by the group's extremist ideology and agenda, and act absent any real control and command or support. Conversely, people who have returned from fighting alongside the group in Syria and Iraq for all intents and purpose become direct extensions of ISIS proper: at the very least they may have become further radicalized, but now possess real fighting experience and training.
At this point, it is a reasonable assumption that those who return home to conduct attacks are most likely "deployed" to create the carnage we have witnessed. This distinction is important because if these individuals are returnees, it represents an escalation.
Up to this point, the idea that Western individuals would return to their home states to plot and conduct attacks was a real concern but had not yet manifested itself with any regularity or this degree of lethality. To date, only two incidents have met this description: the May 2014 shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels and the January 2015 shooting in Verviers, Belgium.
The possibility that returnees may now be targeting their own states changes the discussion about what ISIS's reach might really be. This gives rise to a second important question: should we understand this incident in isolation, or in the context of the downing of the Russian passenger jet two weeks ago, responsibility for which was also claimed by an ISIS affiliated group?
It has not yet been confirmed (both U.S. and British intelligence suggest it is the likeliest cause) that a bomb onboard the plane detonated and destroyed the plane killing 224 people on board. How was the bomb placed on the aircraft? Sharm al-Sheik, a tourist destination for many Europeans and Israelis, has previously been a target for terrorists. As a result its airport was reputed to have adequate security protocols and procedures similar to most Western airports which make the group's ability to defeat those protocols especially troubling.
Groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda are not static; they evolve, adapt, and learn. They actively pursue their own research and development looking to find novel ways to defeat our security measures and attack us (some recent examples include the 2006 liquid bomb plot and the 2010 ink cartridge explosive device). It is entirely possible that this also signals a potential escalation by ISIS coupled with potentially improved capabilities.
While these events appear with increasing regularity, we must not be intimidated. They should however serve as a reminder that terrorism is, and will, remain a significant challenge. They directly impact Canada and Canadians, despite the fact the physical attacks did not occur here.
We need to stand with our allies whenever and wherever they are targeted because these groups will continue to plot attacks against all those they perceive to be their enemies. While it remains highly unlikely this type of incident could occur in Canada, it is not impossible. At the very least, it should once again give pause to not only law enforcement and intelligence agencies, but our new government as well, that the threats posed by these groups, and the ideas they espouse, are very real.