The terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday could be an early harbinger of a new, more professional kind of terrorist attack leveled against the West.
In the past, al-Qaida depended on violent jihadis showing up in Pakistan or Yemen with a passport or visa that would allow them to return to home. The group would train them and send them back. Counter-terrorism officials are concerned that ISIS has taken that a step further by sending battle-hardened fighters to do their dirty work.
Al-Qaida, for example, had developed a six-week training program for potential terrorists. It included teaching recruits basic tradecraft and how to build a bomb. Once they graduated, al-Qaida would send them home. Invariably, something went wrong.
The young men and women either couldn't make the explosive work, or as in the case of Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square bomber, couldn't follow directions once they were home. Shahzad substituted ingredients in his car bomb and it failed to go off. Their lack of experience also often allowed authorities to discover them. When Nazibullah Zazi, a Denver man sent to bomb the New York subway system, couldn't make his explosive work, he contacted his handler for help. U.S. authorities intercepted that call.
Officials are now working under the assumption that the Paris attacks may have been perpetrated by men — and possibly a woman — who fought and trained in Syria. In other words, terrorists who were essentially professionals, instead of the amateurs that al-Qaida used to use.
U.S. officials have been watching changes in strategy from ISIS in recent months. They appear to be training their foreign fighters on the battlefield, in real-life situations, which makes them more successful terrorists later on.
Security in France has been tight ever since the attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January. But that clearly wasn't enough. U.S. officials say they have a numbers problem: about 1,200 people have left France to go and fight in Syria with ISIS. According to counter-terrorism officials, some 200 of them have returned and folded themselves back into French society. Watching them 24 hours a day is untenable.
As a general matter, keeping someone under surveillance around the clock requires about a dozen people. The French police and intelligence services don't have the manpower to do that. So they are having to make educated guesses about who deserves their attention.
The two brothers behind the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Cherif and Said Kouachi, had been tracked by police for years. Authorities stopped following them six months before they gunned down the editorial board of the magazine, because they made the calculation that other people in France were more dangerous. It's a scenario that is replicating itself all over Europe; with over a thousand people on the continent who have traveled to Syria and returned, there is no practical way to keep tabs on them all.
In the U.S., the FBI has been tracking dozens of returnees from the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. FBI Director James Comey has said he believes the Bureau has a very good handle on those people. That doesn't mean the U.S. is immune to this sort of more professional attack — all the problems of professional fighters could be here — but the numbers make it much more manageable.
The U.S. is helping France look for other suspects and possible accomplices. French authorities found a car in the suburbs of Paris that was associated with one of the gunmen and they are now looking for a possible eighth assailant. They appear to know who they are looking for. They are also tracking how the attacks were financed, how the men brought AK-47s and suicide vests into Paris, and whether they have the Syrian connection that authorities fear makes it easier for ISIS to successfully attack.
In the Charlie Hebdo attacks last January, the guns were traced back to Belgium, where there has been a series of arrests in recent days. Two of the gunmen, who died in Friday's attacks, appear to have been Belgian.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. France is marking the second national day of mourning today after the brutal terrorist attacks Friday. Now some details about the investigation into the assault are trickling out. Three teams of gunmen killed more than 120 people and injured hundreds of others. Officials say they have taken some people into custody in both France and Belgium. More arrests are expected. NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston has been following the investigation. She joins me now in our studios. Dina, what are we learning about the attackers?
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, we know that there are at least seven people who were involved directly in the killings. And officials haven't provided much information about them aside from saying that they worked in these three teams to launch the attacks simultaneously. They all died in the attacks. And six of them detonated suicide vests. So it's taking some time to identify them. My sources say one of them was a Frenchman named Omar Ismail Mostefai. He had a criminal record. He was known to French authorities and was thought to have radicalized in 2010. Authorities saw him as a risk. But he was never linked to a terrorist plot. And we're still trying to find out about the others. It's a question of whether or not for example he traveled to Syria last year. There was a Syrian passport that was actually found outside the stadium where there were those two suicide bombers. And it appears to belong to a man who came through Greece as a refugee in October. But people I'm talking to say they aren't sure the passport is real.
MARTIN: These were simultaneous attacks that clearly required some sort of training, right? What are officials thinking about how this all came together?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, this is really different from the al-Qaida model. In the old days, al-Qaida used to have someone who showed up in Pakistan or in Yemen. And they offered to help launch an attack in the West. They would train them for about six weeks. Then they would return to Europe or the U.S. And then, invariably, something went wrong. They either couldn't make the explosives work or authorities discovered them. This is different. ISIS is sending people who have been battle-hardened, people who have been fighting for months or years. And now they're coming back to the West. So they're essentially professionals, not the amateurs that al-Qaida used to send. The concern is they may come back to Europe with people they know and have fought with on the battlefield. So they're actually a cohesive unit who have had an opportunity to work together. And that creates a situation in which ISIS has much more capable people to call on if they want to launch an attack like this. Now, I should say that officials are still trying to determine if that happened here. But that's the situation they're looking at.
MARTIN: Well, when we think back to this past January, after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, clearly France must have bolstered security to the degree that they could. That was insufficient, apparently.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, this is a numbers problem. About 1,200 people have left France to go and fight in Syria with ISIS. And about 200 of them have returned to France. So to watch someone 24 hours a day requires 10 to 12 people doing surveillance - for just one person. So think about the math and how many people that would require. So French intelligence has had to make educated guesses about who's the most dangerous. Now, the two brothers who were behind the Charlie Hebdo attacks, they'd been tracked by police for years. And then six months before the attacks, they stopped following them because they thought they weren't a threat. That's the problem. It's an impossible situation, and it's happening all over Europe.
MARTIN: Is it happening in the U.S.? Does the U.S. have this kind of numbers problem?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, we've been reporting for some time that the FBI's tracking dozens of people who have returned to the U.S. from Syria. FBI director James Comey has said that he believes they have a very good handle on who went and came back - and came back. So the U.S. doesn't have the numbers problem that Europe does. But that doesn't mean the U.S. is immune to this. I mean, all the problems of professional fighters could be here, but the numbers are much more manageable.
MARTIN: NPR counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston tracking this investigation. Thank you so much, Dina.
TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.