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THREAT ASSESSMENT: TERRORIST THREATS FROM LONE ACTORS AND EXTREMIST GROUPS DURING THE 2024 PARIS OLYMPICS VERY LIKELY; INCREASED VIGILANCE AND VISITORS’ PREPAREDNESS NEEDED

Jayde Dorland, Giulia Filomia, Anya Golend-Pratt, Mario López Ausín, Sofia Lopez Simpson, Elena Alice Rossetti, Madeline Thompson, Victoire Tissinié, Olympics Task Force Team

Jennifer Loy, Chief Editor

June 15, 2024


Eiffel Tower, Paris[1]


As the 2024 Olympic Games are set to start on July 26 in Paris, France is on heightened security alert for terrorist threats. This large-scale sports event, hosting almost 1,500 athletes competing in over 50 disciplines, faces major security challenges. Current global tensions, such as the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, increase concerns over the security of the games.[2] Past terrorist attacks in France indicate terrorism as one of the main security threats. The European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (EUROPOL) stated that lone actors are on the rise, as Islamist terrorism remains the main terror threat in Western Europe. The growth of online propaganda allowed lone actors to become an important relay for established groups such as ISIS.[3] The diversity of the events’ locations, spread out across the domestic territory and overseas, complicates their securitization.[4] Amid Russia’s attempts to discredit France through online disinformation campaigns, the Paris Olympics represent a risk for the host country’s global image in case of a failure of securitization, highlighting the need for enhanced preventive and response measures to ensure the visitors’ physical safety.[5] France will deploy local and national security resources and units and resort to foreign assistance from more than 45 countries.[6] French authorities raised the terrorist threat level to the maximum, attack emergency, allowing for exceptional measures including enhanced controls and screenings of individuals in public spaces.[7] 


CTG assesses with HIGH CONFIDENCE that terrorists and violent extremist groups, mostly ISIS, will almost certainly plan and encourage assaults aimed at the Olympic Games, very likely inciting lone actors to act on their behalf. ISIS will very likely activate local IS branches and encourage low-profile attacks from isolated individuals, likely complicating French authorities’ efforts to track their activities. There is a roughly even chance that ISIS and its affiliates will plan more sophisticated, multi-pronged attacks, likely targeting locations that are not linked to the Olympics to circumvent France's implemented security apparatus. The rise of lone actors and the decentralization of terrorist networks will very likely complicate the identification and monitoring of potential threats and suspicious activities, and local unrest will likely divert the attention and security resources away from main terrorist threats such as ISIS.


Recent Events

Following the deadly attack at the Crocus City Hall in Moscow in March 2024, France raised its security alert system to the maximum level, as the perpetrators had reportedly planned to attack France.[8] The threat level will remain in place until at least fall 2024, with a special focus on the Summer Olympic Games, as several security concerns began to arise ahead of the start.[9] French authorities detained a Chechen suspect linked to ISIS in late May, accusing him of planning an attack on a soccer stadium.[10] They arrested another individual near Bordeaux for posting a suspicious message on social media before the passing of the Olympic flame.[11] A teenager claimed he planned to die a martyr using an explosive belt during the summer event.[12] These threats target the capital and event venues in other cities across Metropolitan France and overseas, requiring enhanced vigilance from security personnel and visitors. Recent instances of lost or stolen devices containing security plans raised concerns regarding the potential leak of sensitive information risking to undermine the security apparatus set up for the Olympics.[13] The National Service for Administrative Security Investigations (SNEAS)[14] is actively screening everyone involved in the event, from athletes and their staff to volunteers. These extensive background investigations allow French authorities to detect and arrest candidates for volunteer positions who authorities suspect plan terrorist attacks or disrupt the event’s organization.[15] France adopted these security measures based on the lessons learned from previous events, including the 1972 Munich Olympics attacks. Though lone actors are on the rise, French authorities do not exclude the possibility of a sophisticated, multi-pronged attack echoing the 2015 one, especially as ISIS reached out online “to supporters in France and elsewhere, who may feel emboldened after seeing the recent IS-claimed attack on a concert hall in Moscow.“[16]


Assessments

Paris Olympics organizers and security services need to assess, prevent and counter a variety of threats at a domestic and international level. Internally, France will almost certainly face labor categories’ strikes and protests related to environmental, social, and political sensitive topics. The ongoing Hamas/Isarel conflict will very likely influence internal anti-semitism level and increase the risk of clashes between pro-Palestine and pro-Israel protesters. International Islamist terrorism, especially through ISIS and al-Qaeda propaganda and on-site affiliates or lone actors, will almost certainly pose the main external threat to the Olympics, likely exploiting cyber threats and social unrest to stage actions.


Social action groups will very likely demonstrate in Paris at the time of the games, challenging the effective deployment of security mechanisms in the case of terrorist threats. Climate activist groups such as Extinction Rebellion, Dernière Rénovation, and Saccage 2024 will very likely organize disruptive activities on-site, such as roadblocks, to protest the Olympic environmental impacts. These events will unlikely promote violent escalation but will likely impact local traffic and transportation systems, very likely requiring reallocation of security resources and management, such as police officers and sniffer dogs, for increased passenger density at transport hubs. There is a roughly even chance this will disrupt protocols designed to protect Paris’ transport infrastructure and strain surveillance detection technologies. Social action on national issues, such as public sector strikes and farmer's protests, will very likely favor disruptive strategies draining security resources. Municipal police strikes during the Olympics would very likely reduce the available personnel to address potential terror threats, very likely limiting the efficiency of counter-terrorism protocols.


Disruptions stemming from social action events such as protests, counter-protests, demonstrations, and strikes will likely increase the terrorist threat, with a roughly even chance of providing high publicity targets and compromising security responses. Geopolitical tensions regarding the Israel-Hamas war and discontent over the contracting of private security providers with links to Israel’s defense industry and the participation of Israeli athletes will almost certainly increase pro-Palestine demonstrations, likely resulting in large crowds and counter-protests near Olympics locations. This will almost certainly require heightened security mechanisms, such as the deployment of extra crowd control personnel, very likely increasing the risk of escalations and clashes with law enforcement. There is a roughly even chance that incidents at pro-Palestine demonstrations will contribute to domestic extremists’ radicalization, increasing the possibility of lone-actor attacks. There is a roughly even chance large crowds and international media coverage of pro-Palestine and pro-Israel rallies will attract terrorist organizations with anti-Israel ideologies, such as ISIS, al-Qaeda, or Iran-backed groups with local supporters, likely seeking easy targets for high-impact attacks. The increased deployment of security units near such protests will very likely stretch Olympic security resources, likely limiting the detection of different terrorist threats and the efficiency of prevention protocols.


The current geopolitical context, especially marked by the Israel-Hamas war, will very likely deepen divisions among French society, likely increasing violent and extremist stances. Internal and international sensitive topics will likely increase the polarization of French public opinion. There is a roughly even chance that right-wing extremists will engage in aggressive acts towards migrants and Palestine supporters, likely framing them as a threat to support their rhetoric and justify their acts as preventive or retaliatory. France’s displacement of individuals from migrant and homeless parts in the suburbs of Paris will likely alienate people, very likely encouraging them to seek those groups and communities who they can share their struggles with. There is a roughly even chance that displaced individuals will develop resentment towards the French government’s decision that could motivate them to attack those who facilitated their displacement.


Threat analysts predict that ISIS and al-Qaeda-linked terrorists and violent extremists seeking to plot and incite attacks will present the largest threat toward Paris 2024.[17] The French security services' monitoring of online Islamist threats and known group affiliates in the lead-up to the games will very likely disrupt planned attacks. French surveillance will very likely enable the application of travel bans on hostile non-residents, revoking their entry into France. Monitoring of domestic threats will very likely facilitate investigations into terrorist and extremist networks in France. Islamist terror groups almost certainly monitor publicized details regarding France’s planned security measures for the Paris Olympics 2024, very likely using gathered information to guide and adapt their modus operandi for the games. National and international news outlets’ documentation of the range of security forces deployed and heightened usage of surveillance tools, including drones and artificial intelligence-reinforced video technologies, will likely deter the staging of large-scale attacks.


Islamist terror groups will very likely increase their distribution of inciteful rhetoric online, encouraging ideological affiliates’ lone-actor attacks to undermine government and security surveillance on group tactics and adherents. The rise of Jihadist extremism in France will likely motivate individuals to conduct terrorist attacks against citizens and politicians attending the Olympics. Recent claims by Khaled Meshaal, former Hamas chief, encouraging “those who teach jihad” to continue spreading its ideology,[18] will likely motivate the radicalization of extremist marginalized individuals in support of the Palestinian cause. The easy access to social media allowed Hamas leaders to mobilize radicalized individuals in Western countries, likely incentivizing them to attack those who support Israel at the Olympics. Online posts will almost certainly recommend low-sophistication style attacks to evade implemented security measures focused on large-scale attack methods. Aspiring attackers will almost certainly find these styles of assaults more achievable, likely encouraging their planning and execution. Previous low-sophistication attacks across Europe will very likely inspire upcoming planned attacks, informing attackers of the most damaging and impactful methods.


Lone actors or small cell structures seeking to target the 2024 Olympics will likely aim at soft targets such as fan zones, shops, and businesses in red and blue security zones. There is a roughly even chance that potential attackers will become less visible, likely using the typical apparel that supporters wear, such as t-shirts with their respective countries' flags, colorful accessories and sunglasses, and flags on their shoulders. These extremist individuals or groups will likely use the free flow of pedestrians within these zones to execute planned attacks against the city. Perpetrators will likely target multiple businesses and locations within these security zones to compromise the overall security of the games and redirect the resources of law enforcement to weaken the effectiveness of response times.


There is a roughly even chance that Islamist terrorists or lone jihadist actors will attempt to target Paris's transport infrastructure. French authorities will very likely increase security measures in crowded transportation hubs such as airports, railways, buses, and subway stations, likely increasing checks and monitoring potential threats among the passengers. The French National Police will very likely rely on AI technology for improving surveillance of crowded sites such as transport hubs, very likely gaining awareness of abandoned bags and banned perimeter breaches. Authorities will unlikely implement facial recognition surveillance, likely prioritizing privacy and legislation compliance. Strikes in the transportation sector, such as the traffic controllers or drivers’ strikes during the Olympics, will almost certainly increase passenger density, disrupting ongoing safety measures.


Cyber threats will almost certainly enhance possible terrorist activities during the Olympics. Cyberterrorism will very likely aim at targeting transportation systems to disturb and compromise the course of the games, likely generating chaos and contexts that would benefit terrorist activity. Hackers will very likely try to target surveillance systems, hindering the possibility of monitoring potential attacks on infrastructures and Olympic venues. Misinformation campaigns will also very likely favor terrorist activities during the games, almost certainly providing fake information and generating uncertainty and confusion among the crowds of fans and tourists. The Games’ organizers and local authorities will very likely continue collaborating with the French National Agency (ANSSI) and other cybersecurity private companies to limit the level of such threats, by constantly monitoring networks and infrastructures.


There is a roughly even chance that the importance of the event will encourage local and global terrorist actors to coordinate and plan more sophisticated attacks. The global live media coverage will likely motivate them to launch high-impact assaults to spread fear and increase the repercussions of their acts. They will likely seek to hinder the coordination of the various France-deployed security units by attacking several locations simultaneously. They will likely target areas without links to the Olympics, such as restaurants in less crowded neighborhoods, to create surprise and diminish security forces’ preparedness. Unanticipated multi-pronged attacks will likely create confusion and challenge the coordination of the emergency teams, likely requiring their sudden deployment in areas outside of the Olympics’ extensive safety perimeters. The absence of delimited areas of protection in neighborhoods where no Olympics-related events take place will likely lead civilians to lower their guard and reduce their awareness, likely creating a favorable context for high-impact attacks. 


Future Implications

Protests from far-right groups or farmers and climate activists' demonstrative actions will very likely disrupt the transportation sectors, likely increasing transit time and overcrowding. These conditions will very likely underline public transport vulnerabilities and create a conducive environment for increased casualties and disruptions, should a terrorist attack occur. There is a roughly even chance that anti-Olympics actors will try to disrupt the games through bomb hoaxes or unattended objects in public transport, likely leading to evacuation, panic among visitors, and functional blockade. Local authorities will almost certainly need to find a balance between informing the visitors/attendees about the safety escape plans and avoiding revealing sensitive information that terrorist groups might exploit to attack.


Lone actors will very likely stage low-sophistication attacks, such as vehicular ramming in areas with large crowds, stabbings, and arson. Terror groups will almost certainly encourage aspiring attackers to keep a low profile while planning activities. Terrorist groups will likely use decentralized social media to share how-to guides on creating improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and improvised incendiary devices (IIDs) to facilitate attacks. There is a roughly even chance terror groups will encourage activities involving imitation suicide vests to cause mass disruption of the games, cause panic, and divert security forces' attention.


These extremist and terrorist lone actors will likely choose less protected areas outside of the official Olympic venues, likely opting for symbolic soft targets such as concerts, entertainment areas for Islamist terrorism; Jewish neighborhood le Marais for antisemitic attackers; or the Pride House for anti-LGBTQ+ movements. Since most lone actors will likely be Paris citizens, they will likely exploit their local knowledge to move freely, choose unexpected targets, and spot potential security vulnerabilities. The significant, diversified amount of possible targets and their physical distance from the Olympic areas will very likely hinder 24/7 surveillance, likely prompting authorities to implement aerial surveillance and inform local personnel and attendees on how to spot potential warning signs of suspicious behavior, how to contact law enforcement, and how to protect themselves and evacuate in case of attacks.


Auto-radicalized lone actors will very likely pose identification challenges for security forces, likely reducing the time between radicalization, affiliation, and terrorist action. Local individuals attracted by extremist ideologies will almost certainly watch online propaganda and indoctrinate themselves, likely executing their attacks by choosing their own timing and less-surveilled areas. The lack of coordination and direct communication with terrorist groups’ leadership will likely help them keep a low profile. There is a roughly even chance they will not be directly in contact with ISIS or al-Qaeda, likely autonomously pledging their loyalty to these groups shortly before the attack through a social media post or video. The short period between this affiliation and their operations will likely limit the local authorities’ chances to monitor them and prevent their attacks, likely increasing the need for every Olympics participant to be vigilant and report any suspicious behaviors.  


ISIS and al-Qaeda will likely try to directly hire new cadres to assemble new terrorist cells and coordinate their actions, with a roughly even chance to plan sophisticated simultaneous attacks. These terrorist organizations will likely exclude French sympathizers that are on the “fichier S” lists, since they are known to French authorities and might be under surveillance.[19] Terrorist networks will likely try to contact members in person to evade the enhanced local authorities’ online monitoring, likely meeting sympathizers in public spaces such as entertainment venues or parks while avoiding prisons, mosques, or banlieue areas known for extremists’ presence. There is a roughly even chance terrorist groups’ leadership will resort to non-French nationals for recruitment and potential attacks, likely using the presence of multicultural and multinational spectators to hide them during the Olympics. Terrorist groups will likely favor European nationals, especially from neighboring countries such as Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Spain, likely exploiting the geographical proximity and the Schengen area that enables free cross-border movement.


There is a roughly even chance that ISIS-K or al-Qaeda structured cells will exploit local unrest, political protests, and environmental activists’ demonstrations to blend with the protesters and hide in plain sight to reach crowded places. Local authorities will likely manage these events from a public safety and crowd-management approach, likely increasing the risk of overlooking potential terrorist infiltration. Multiple cells will likely try to infiltrate different locations to attack them simultaneously through low-sophistication weapons. The perpetrators will likely use the high number of participants and the spread of panic hindering orderly evacuation to multiply disruption and casualties, likely challenging evacuation plans and effective emergency services intervention.  

 

[1] France, generated by a third party database

[2] Sécurité des jeux Olympiques et Paralympiques 2024: ensues et défis, Vie Publique, March 2024, https://www.vie-publique.fr/eclairage/291366-securite-des-jeux-olympiques-de-paris-2024-enjeux-et-defis 

[3] Europol chief warns about ‘lone wolf’ jihadist threat, France 24, March 2024, https://www.france24.com/en/20120324-europe-police-chief-warns-jihadist-mohamed-merah-islamist-wainwright-europol-france 

[4] Sécurité des jeux Olympiques et Paralympiques 2024: ensues et défis, Vie Publique, March 2024, https://www.vie-publique.fr/eclairage/291366-securite-des-jeux-olympiques-de-paris-2024-enjeux-et-defis 

[5] Russian disinformation campaign takes aim at Paris Olympics, Microsoft says, Reuters, June 2024, https://www.reuters.com/technology/russian-disinformation-campaign-takes-aim-paris-olympics-microsoft-says-2024-06-03/ Translated by Victoire Tissinié)

[7] Elevation de la posture vigipirate au niveau le plus élevé: urgence attentat, Préfet de la Corse-du-Sud, March 2024, https://www.corse-du-sud.gouv.fr/Actions-de-l-Etat/Securite-protection-des-populations/Securite-tranquillite-publique/Elevation-de-la-posture-vigipirate-au-niveau-le-plus-eleve-urgence-attentat (Translated by Victoire Tissinié)

[8] Macron says Islamists who hit Russia had tried to attack France, Reuters, March 2024, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/macron-it-would-be-cynical-counterproductive-russia-pin-moscow-attack-ukraine-2024-03-25/ 

[9] Plan Vigipirate: “été-automne 2024,“ Préfet de la Seine-Maritime, May 2024, https://www.seine-maritime.gouv.fr/Actions-de-l-Etat/Securite-et-Defense/Securite-publique/Plan-Vigipirate/Plan-Vigipirate-ete-automne-2024 (Translated by Victoire Tissinié)

[10] France files preliminary terrorism charges against teenager accused of plan to attack Olympic fans, AP News, June 2024, https://apnews.com/article/paris-olympics-st-etienne-foiled-plot-b802119bfa66922c774573acdac37247 

[11] France: un homme arrêté en raison d’un message inquiétant avant le passage de la flamme olympique, Le Soir, May 2024, https://www.lesoir.be/589814/article/2024-05-23/france-un-homme-arrete-en-raison-dun-message-inquietant-avant-le-passage-de-la (Translated by Victoire Tissinié)

[12] France arrests 16-year-old after he said he wanted to die a 'martyr' at Olympics, spokesperson says, Reuters, April 2024, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/france-arrests-16-year-old-after-he-said-he-wanted-die-martyr-olympics-2024-04-24/ 

[13] Bag with Paris 2024 data lost, possibly stolen, prosecutor says, Reuters, February 2024, https://www.reuters.com/sports/bag-with-paris-2024-security-plans-stolen-sources-2024-02-28/ 

[14] Service National des Enquêtes de Sécurité (SNEAS), in French

[15] Paris 2024 : cinq questions sur le cribbage d’un million de personnes “concernées de près ou de loin” par les Jeux Olympiques, France Info, March 2024, https://www.francetvinfo.fr/les-jeux-olympiques/paris-2024-cinq-questions-sur-le-criblage-d-un-million-de-personnes-concernees-de-pres-ou-de-loin-par-les-jeux-olympiques_6407755.html (Translated by Victoire Tissinié)

[16] France beefs up security as Paris Olympics approach, BBC, April 2024, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-68772589 

[17]  Terror attacks headline threats to upcoming Paris Olympics, Voice of America, June 2024, https://www.voanews.com/a/terror-attacks-headline-threats-to-upcoming-paris-olympics/7642276.html

[18] Hamas global jihad – An impact in France?, International Center for Counterterrorism, October 2023, https://www.icct.nl/publication/hamas-global-jihad-impact-france 

[19] French authorities designate “fichier S” individuals that might threaten national security https://www.france24.com/en/20181212-france-terror-watchlist-fichier-security-attack 

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