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ISIS aim is to trigger a backlash against Muslims in France, writes Paul Cruikshank

European intelligence services have detected renewed efforts by ISIS to reach out to extremists in Europe, he says

CNN —  

The attack by two knife-wielding assailants on a church outside Rouen, Normandy, Tuesday in which the attackers killed an elderly priest by slitting his throat and gravely wounded a hostage appears to have been quite deliberately targeted at the Catholic church.

Although attendance numbers are down, Catholicism is still deeply entwined in the national fabric of France, and the attack has already led to outrage across the country.

The goal in going after such a provocative target? To trigger a backlash against Muslims in France and drive the country’s Muslims into the recruiting arms of the Islamic State.

The attackers filmed the atrocity, a nun who managed to escape told CNN affiliate BFM.

According to French President Francois Hollande, the attackers claimed they were acting on behalf of ISIS, something the group also claimed via an affiliated news agency.

A French intelligence source told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that one of the attackers had been radicalized after the Charlie Hebdo killings and had tried to enter Syria on two occasions and was associated with Maxime Hauchard, another French jihadi who appeared in an ISIS beheading video in 2014.

In recent weeks European intelligence services have detected a significantly expanded effort by ISIS operatives in Syria and Iraq to directly reach out to extremists in Europe to encourage them to launch attacks. European counter-terrorism officials believe the group is trying to project an image of strength and unleash vengeance, as it loses ground in Syria, Iraq and Libya. This month has already seen ISIS supporters in Europe launch two attacks in Bavaria and a deadly truck rampage in Nice.

ISIS ‘aiming to stoke backlash’

ISIS listed French churches as targets in the fifth issue of its French language magazine which came out last summer “to create fear in their hearts.”

In April 2015 French police thwarted an ISIS directed plot to attack a church in Villejuif in the Paris area after the operative recruited to launch the attack – Sid Ahmed Ghlam, an Algerian student in Paris – accidently shot himself in the leg. Ghlam had twice traveled to Turkey where he met French ISIS operatives linked to Fabien Clain, a senior French ISIS member who later is believed to have helped mastermind the November 2015 Paris attacks.