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Was the Islamic State group really behind the attack in Texas?

Was the Islamic State group behind an attack on a drawing contest in Texas as it claims? Judy Woodruff talks to former Deputy National Security Advisor Juan Zarate about how terror groups like IS try to inspire others into homegrown attacks and the challenge facing American authorities to prevent them.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Separately, there is heightened security in New York City tonight, as the French satirical magazine "Charlie Hebdo" receives an award from a writers group for courage and freedom of expression. Twelve people were killed in January when gunmen attacked the magazine for printing cartoons with the image of Mohammed.

    To take a close look at threats here at home, we turn to Juan Zarate, former deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism under President George W. Bush.

    Juan Zarate, welcome back to the program.

  • JUAN ZARATE, Former Deputy National Security Advisor:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, Islamic State claiming responsibility. Do you believe they are responsible?

  • JUAN ZARATE:

    Well, it depends on how you define responsibility, because it's clear that the Islamic State is inspiring actors around the world to fly their banner and to attack, including in Western capitals.

    The real question for counterterrorism authorities though is, are they actually directing these kinds of attacks, and is there evidence that they actually deployed these two individuals to attack? I think the working theory now is that this is more about inspiration than direction, but I think we will have to see how the facts play out and what the investigation brings.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Why is that the working theory?

  • JUAN ZARATE:

    Well, I think the sense is that these are two individuals who had been in the United States for some time, of course, hadn't perhaps traveled to train in Syria and Iraq.

    No evidence that these are foreign fighters of the type that we worry about being trained and then deployed back, but there is a concern, Judy, and we have seen this with the use of social media by the Islamic State, that there could be peer-to-peer direction. We have seen this in the context of recruitment, the recent case of the Somali-Americans traveling to Syria, being pulled by one of their compatriots.

    You could have the reverse work as well. You could have the Islamic State using social media to actually direct attacks in a strategic way. And it's the pervasiveness of both the information environment we're in and the strategic calculus that these individuals are engaged in. They could pick a target like this they know is ripe for attack, with Geert Wilders, this prime target for assassination by extremists. They know that this is a target that could have strategic impact.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, what does this mean for counterterrorism, the folks who work in counterterrorism in the U.S. for authorities? How do they know where to direct their resources and what to focus on?

  • JUAN ZARATE:

    Well, Judy, it's a huge challenge.

    And Director Comey, director of the FBI, has said they have investigations in all 50 states around suspect individuals who may be inspired by groups like the Islamic State to attack in place. You have the problem that the Islamic State and al-Qaida still is trying to inspire actors and individuals to attack where they are, perhaps not even to travel to Syria or Afghanistan.

    And the reality is that you're never quite sure when someone like these two actors may be animated by a particular event, a particular activity. And so, for law enforcement authorities, it's about prevention and prediction, and that's incredibly hard when you don't have clear markers of activity.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, how much do events like this one — I mean, we talked about how authorities in Texas spent months getting ready for this event over the weekend in — near Dallas, and, then, as we mentioned, there is an event tonight in New York honoring the work of "Charlie Hebdo."

    Do authorities just naturally then have to worry about every — every event like this?

  • JUAN ZARATE:

    I think they do now, Judy. I think the reality is, we're in an ideological battle, as well as a terrorism threat environment, where these kinds of events, where freedom of speech is being advocated, rightfully, also present a ripe target for extremists who know that they have particular types of targets they want to hit, particular messages that they want to send with the types of attacks they engage in.

    And so the environment is very much ripe for these kinds of events and attacks, where individuals just by the environment itself understand where they need to attack. They don't need to be deployed by Baghdadi or Ayman al-Zawahri. They know what kinds of attacks are appropriate and the kinds of attacks that they want to engage in.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, does this mean folks in counterterrorism have to be literally rewriting the playbook every day?

  • JUAN ZARATE:

    I think that's right.

    I think the threat is more diverse geographically, more diverse in terms of nationalities. You have Somali-Americans going to Syria. You have North African Frenchmen going to Yemen. And you have all of these threats emerging in very different ways with these groups trying to inspire individuals in small cells to attack in place.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Juan Zarate, we thank you once again.

  • JUAN ZARATE:

    Thank you, Judy.

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