The jihadists struck Paris on November 13. On that Friday the 13th, the band on stage in the Bataclan theater, where 89 people were murdered, was Eagles of Death Metal. The song it was playing was “Kiss of the Devil.” The details sound like something out of Hollywood, but the horror was deadly real. In total, the terrorists would murder 130 people, the vast majority in the prime of their lives.
The multiple massacre left France reeling, vulnerable, and also deeply confused—but not about the nature of the operation. Islamic State (IS) took responsibility for the attacks, which were clearly another spillover from the Syrian civil war. Their so-called mastermind, the Belgian Abdelhamid Abaaoud, had spent time in Syria as the head of an IS unit devoted to dispatching jihadis to Europe. Earlier in the year, in a profile in Dabiq, IS’s propaganda magazine, Abbaoud flaunted the fact that he was planning acts of mass murder. “We spent months trying to find a way into Europe,” he said, “and by Allah’s strength, we succeeded in finally making our way to Belgium. We were then able to obtain weapons and set up a safe house while we planned to carry out operations against the Crusaders.”
So the problem was clear, as was the threat: global jihad enjoyed a safe haven in Syria, which allowed it to build jihadi networks across Europe and the Middle East. French confusion stemmed not from identifying that threat but from figuring out what, practically, could be done about it. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Nicolas Sarkozy, the former French president, stepped forward. France, he said, is “in the worst of situations. We are sufficiently prominent to be a target, but not prominent enough to eradicate these barbarians.” His solution: “[T]he Russians must be associated with the work of the coalition to destroy [Islamic State].”
Sarkozy’s proposal was not new. Vladimir Putin himself had first floated the idea of a unified alliance against Islamic State two months earlier, at the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. At the time, the government of François Hollande responded tepidly, observing that Russia was less interested in defeating Islamic State than in propping up the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad: a vicious sectarian actor whose wholesale slaughter of Sunni Muslims was IS’s greatest recruiting tool. In the view of the French government, Assad’s barbarism, abetted as it was by the Russians and the Iranians, was thus also the main cause of the refugee crisis plaguing Europe; until he was deposed, a stable new order would never arise.