News - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Belfer Center Insights into Paris Attacks

November 17, 2015

The terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, which killed at least 129 people and injured hundreds of others, stunned the international community. In the days since, there has been renewed debate over a host of issues, including the strategy to defeat ISIS, the Syrian migrant crisis, and where the terrorist group might strike next. The attacks have also intensified the diplomacy surrounding the Syrian Civil War, and reopened the debate over the proper balance between security and privacy in the Western world.

Belfer Center experts have been weighing in on these and related topics. Below is a guide to their thoughts and insights. All of the quotes are exclusive to the Belfer Center except where otherwise noted.


Military action

Stephen M. Walt
Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Affairs, Belfer Center

“ISIS hopes to ignite a vast religious war, to vindicate its narrative of Western hostility and win it more support. Sending U.S. forces back into the Middle East maelstrom would give ISIS exactly what it wants. Military force alone cannot solve this problem, and could easily make it worse.”


Charles Freilich
Senior Fellow, International Security Program, Belfer Center;
Former deputy national security advisor in Israel

“Air strikes, without some ground forces, will compound the problem, as ISIS learns that the West is unwilling to defend its liberties, no matter how heinous the provocation. Immediate efforts must focus on ISIS, but Assad has murdered 250,000 people and Iran has not abandoned its nuclear ambitions. They remain the primary threats.”


Gary Samore
Executive Director for Research, Belfer Center;
Former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and WMD Terrorism

“After the Paris attacks, President Obama must demonstrate that his strategy for defeating Daesh without committing U.S. grounds troops can succeed. The immediate test is a planned attack by Kurdish and Syrian Arab forces, backed by U.S. and allied air power, on Raqqa, capital of the Islamic State Caliphate. If the attack succeeds, it will validate the Administration's strategy, but if it fails, calls for a new approach requiring U.S. ground forces will become more intense.”

Attacks in America?

Michael Morell
Senior Fellow, Belfer Center;
Former Deputy Director, CIA

“As a terrorist group, ISIS poses a threat to the Homeland. That threat today is largely indirect—ISIS’s ability to radicalize young Americans to conduct attacks here. The FBI has over 900 open investigations into homegrown extremists, the vast majority radicalized by ISIS and a large number of which relate to individuals who may be plotting attacks here.”

(Op-ed,TIME, 11/15/15)

The Edward Snowden question

Juliette Kayyem
Lecturer in Public Policy, Belfer Center;
Former Assistant Director for Intergovernmental Affairs, Department of Homeland Security

“After the [Edward] Snowden surveillance disclosures, the pendulum swung very much into stopping a lot of the intelligence efforts, and of course Europe was not pleased about what we were doing. My suspicion is that Europe is going to reexamine its response to the Snowden disclosures [following the Paris attacks], and you’re going to get a greater surveillance apparatus in those countries.”

(Interview,Harvard Gazette, 11/15/15)

The Migrant Crisis

Nicholas Burns
Director, Future of Diplomacy Project, Belfer Center

“It would be a grave, grave misjudgment if we decided to close our borders to refugees because the United States has always, under Republican and Democratic administrations, welcomed refugees. We’re a refugee immigrant nation. Remember that Albert Einstein, Henry Kissinger, and Madeleine Albright all came to this country as refugees. It’s very important that we keep our doors open.”

(Interview, Harvard Gazette, 11/15/15)


Kelly M. Greenhill
Research Fellow, International Security Program, Belfer Center

“Tightening migration policies would do nothing to address the fundamental underlying causes of terrorist attacks: namely, the appeal of radicalization to a small, but committed, segment of the marginalized and disaffected already living within the European Union, many of whom are citizens.”

(Op-ed, New York Times, 11/16/15)


Jill Goldenziel
Research Fellow, International Security Program, Belfer Center

“Europe must not fall into ISIS's trap. ISIS wants to stop Syrians from fleeing its realm.  It wants to stoke anti-Muslim backlash to provoke more European Muslims to radicalize. The Paris attacker’s Syrian refugee passport may be real or fake. Regardless, failing to handle the matter with caution is perilous for both refugees and European security.”


Rolf Mowatt-Larssen
Senior Fellow, Belfer Center
Former Intelligence Office, CIA, and Director of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, DoE

“As we battle terrorists, we should be mindful that regional chaos and the collapse of order also poses grave long term consequences. We are watching a human rights catastrophe unfold in front of our eyes. The West is finally calling the Syrian refugee problem a “crisis” only when thousands of refugees show up on our shores. Is not the real crisis the fact innocent people are being systematically slaughtered? The civilized world will not prevail in the war against violent Islamic extremism until evil is confronted, for what it is.”

Challenges for Europe

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Fellow, Future of Diplomacy Project, Belfer Center

“…Europeans must design a new immigration policy that admits immigrants only if they are committed to adopt European values and to reject precisely the Islamist politics that makes them vulnerable to the siren song of the caliphate.”

(Op-ed, The Wall Street Journal, 11/15/15)


Douglas Alexander
Fisher Family Fellow, Future of Diplomacy Project, Belfer Center;
Former Shadow Foreign Secretary, United Kingdom

"The horrific terrorist attacks in Paris confirm that European leaders now face simultaneous security, refugee and Eurozone crises‎. These attacks also confirm that the Middle East - a volatile, destabilised and deteriorating region - demands fresh approaches from Global leaders."


Niall Ferguson
Board of Directors, Belfer Center

“Let us be clear about what is happening. Like the Roman Empire in the early fifth century, Europe has allowed its defenses to crumble. As its wealth has grown, so its military prowess has shrunk, along with its self-belief. It has grown decadent in its shopping malls and sports stadiums. At the same time, it has opened its gates to outsiders who have coveted its wealth without renouncing their ancestral faith.”

(Op-ed, The Boston Globe, 11/16/15)

Strategic Responses

Evan Perkoski
Research Fellow, International Security Program, Belfer Center

“The recent attacks in Paris underscore the urgent need for Western nations to develop a coherent, cooperative strategy to confront the Islamic State and the broader civil war raging in Syria.  Ad hoc, piecemeal strategies have only undermined our collective security. Though Western nations should be careful not to overreact and play into ISIS’s own strategy, they must work together to address the sources of regional instability that ultimately allow ISIS to flourish.”


Vera Mironova
Research Fellow, International Security Program, Belfer Center

“The Paris attacks should show that the need for negotiations is more urgent then thought before, and West (and Russia) should put more pressure on the fighting sides to get to the negotiations table. And we already see it happening in Vienna. Obviously ISIS was expecting the West to increase the bombing after the attack and was most likely prepared. What it is not prepared for is Western countries getting together in the diplomatic arena to reach some kind of solution for Syria and, as a result, decrease the chaos that is feeding ISIS on the ground.”


David Ignatius
Senior Fellow, Future of Diplomacy Project, Belfer Center
Columnist, Washington Post

“Do Western nations think that Muslim lives matter less? Most of us would resist any such characterization of callousness. But Western outrage about the carnage in Paris, coupled with near-indifference to similar killings in the Arab world, suggests to many Muslims that a double standard exists -- and they find it deeply upsetting.”

(Column, The Washington Post, 11/16/15)

Terrorist Recruitment

Wendy Sherman
Senior Fellow, Belfer Center;
Former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs

“This issue of propaganda, of public diplomacy, of messaging, is very critical….[We need to] understand what motivates people to do these things and to try to counter-message that…to attract them to a different life in a different world.”

(Interview, MSNBC, 11/19/15)


Farah Pandith
Senior Fellow, Future of Diplomacy Project, Belfer Center;
Former State Department Special Representative to Muslim Communities

“We can actually go at the ideological war with the kind of will and determination that ISIS has. They aren't sophisticated. They are determined. We need to be determined, too.”

(Interview, “Face the Nation,” 11/15/15)


Rami Khouri
Senior Fellow, Middle East Initiative, Belfer Center;
At-large Editor, The Daily Star

“The Paris attacks by ISIS, alongside the resurgence of al Qaeda and the Taliban, suggest that a 'war on terror' response would be emotionally understandable and satisfying, but ineffective once again. A more serious and difficult parallel effort is needed to work with dysfunctional Arab states with their limited legitimacy to tackle the widespread vulnerability, humiliation and hopelessness among tens of millions of voiceless citizens that now generate chaos, violence and endless recruits for these criminal militant movements.”
For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:Belfer Center Insights into Paris Attacks.” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, November 17, 2015.