High volume of potential threats challenges Western counterterrorism efforts

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    There are more questions tonight about the terror attacks in France and what they mean for security in the West, and also for the radical Islam movement.

    To help us interpret today's events, a short while ago, I spoke again to Peter Neumann, director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King's College in London. and Juan Zarate. He's the former White House deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism from 2005 to 2009. He's now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

    Juan Zarate, Peter Neumann, thank you both for joining us.

    Peter Neumann, to you first. This claim now by al-Qaida in Yemen that they are the ones who directed these attacks in France, what do you make of this?

  • PETER NEUMANN, King’s College London:

    I think it is plausible.

    Al-Qaida in Yemen has always been the most professional al-Qaida affiliate. They have always been very focused on attacks in the West. They have always been very professional. And, of course, it is also true that al-Qaida has something to prove. Ever since last year, the jihadist movement has essentially been split into two groups, Islamic State and al-Qaida.

    The Islamic State has been on the offensive. Al-Qaida has been sidelined. And al-Qaida doesn't like it. They want to show to the world that they still exist. And one of the things that they think they can do — that think they can do better than ISIS is to pull off spectacular attacks in the West. So, it would make sense.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Juan Zarate, a question I think on everybody's mind is, why weren't these men being followed, especially the two brothers? We know at least one of them had traveled to Yemen. Why weren't authorities on top of this?

  • JUAN ZARATE, Former White House Counterterrorism Official:

    Well, French authorities knew about these individuals.

    And, in fact, the two brothers appeared on the American no-fly list. And so they were known to authorities. They had been arrested before. The younger brother had been part of a plot, in addition to Mr. Coulibaly, who was part of the kosher market attack. And so they were known to authorities.

    The challenge for French officials, as well as Western counterterrorism officials across the board, is the volume of threats and concerns that they have. The French are monitoring over 5,000 individuals and suspects who may have a variety of contacts with terrorist organization. They are worried about over 1,000 foreign fighters who are flowing in and out of the conflict in Syria and Iraq.

    And the French have been trying to arrest and disrupt plots and cells throughout not just Paris, but throughout the country for the last two years with significant arrests. And so they have been very aggressive, but they have a hierarchy of threats to monitor. And they can't monitor everyone 24/7 with all of their resources.

    And so there is going to be a lot of hindsight and review of what known and not known, what should have been done. But it's a difficult task to predict who is going to attack next and who has the motivation to attack in a key Western capital like Paris.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Given that, Peter Neumann, how much should Europe, France, and the United States be concerned about future attacks by individuals like these?

  • PETER NEUMANN:

    I think I have always said that. Unfortunately, it seems like this is the going to be the story of 2015.

    I think there is going to be more attacks like this, unfortunately. And it's to do with the fact that I think something has happened here. People have realized, jihadists have realized you do not necessarily have to pull off — pull off an incredibly complicated, complex attack anymore in order to shock, terrorize and polarize societies.

    You can do a fairly small-scale attack. You can even do just one killing, and it can have the same effect that the London, Madrid, or even 9/11 bombings had. I think they have figured that out, and I think we will see more of these attacks in Europe in the future.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And, Juan Zarate, what kinds of targets? For example, the move this morning on the kosher supermarket in Paris, other Jewish targets we have seen, is this a potential target in the future?

  • JUAN ZARATE:

    Absolutely.

    And Peter's right that the environment has grown in part more diverse geographically and in terms of operatives, but also more dangerous in terms of the potential targets. And certainly government sites, key symbolic sites have always been in the terrorist crosshairs.

    But now you have softer targets. You have seen the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi. You have seen the Ottawa and Sydney attacks. You have now seen the attacks in Paris where not only are terrorists realizing that they can do lower-scale attacks that will have strategic impact, but they can hit targets that will have ideological meaning.

    They can attack Charlie Hebdo, which is a known target, to attack the very idea of pluralism, to defend the honor of Islam, and to force a debate around all of these issues both within Muslim communities and in the West. And so they are finding very unique targets.

    And I think Peter is right that the message from al-Qaida and the Islamic State, which has been to attack in place, to motivate and to stoke radicals to take action on their own and perhaps to facilitate if they can, is really becoming a strategy that's taking hold.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, Peter Neumann, for authorities, what do they focus on? What do we, what do Americans focus on, what do ordinary citizens in Western Europe focus on as potential targets in the future?

  • PETER NEUMANN:

    In almost every Western European country, you're talking about several thousand people that are considered to be potentially violent.

    Which ones of them are you going to watch 24 hours a day? The security forces know that in order to watch someone 24 hours a day, you need about between 15 and 20 police officers or 15 and 20 spies. You cannot — not even American authorities can afford that capacity level.

    So you constantly have to make choices. And that has become more difficult, because these smaller-scale attacks require less planning, fewer people. There's less communication to pick up on and it becomes much less — difficult to predict. So, we really have to work on new indicators for where danger comes from.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, do authorities have that level of sophistication in terms of understanding who to focus on and who maybe not to focus on?

  • JUAN ZARATE:

    You have actors that present hybrid risks.

    We have talked about sort of the large-scale directed attacks from an al-Qaida core and an Islamic State, like 9/11. We have also talked about the lone wolf attack or the deranged individuals, using the narrative and ideology as inspiration.

    What you have here is kind of an admixture. And I think the danger is you — to the extent that you have individuals who are motivated, inspired and perhaps even trained and facilitated by other groups, that creates a real challenge for authorities to figure out who they are and when they may act.

    To the extent that they have connectivity abroad, that usually is a very good sign. We can usually ferret that out. But in this case, the contacts with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula were in 2011. And the reality was, these guys seemed to have gone to ground until 2015. And the question is, why did they wait so long and what really animated them?

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    A lot of questions still to be answered, and, one assumes, some regrouping on the part of security.

  • PETER NEUMANN:

    Absolutely.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But, Juan Zarate, Peter Neumann, we thank you.

  • JUAN ZARATE:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • PETER NEUMANN:

    Thank you.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And this evening, the U.S. State Department urged American citizens abroad to maintain — quote — "a high level of vigilance" following the events in France.

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