US security response to Paris attacks likely can't stop ISIS

Lawmakers Briefed on ISIS Terror Threat
Lawmakers Briefed on ISIS Terror Threat

Police in the District of Columbia and elsewhere have stepped up security in and around government buildings, landmarks and transportation hubs after an offshoot of the Islamic State group reportedly released a video saying it it will carry out a Paris-style attack on the nation's capital.

Metro Transit Police in the District have increased K9 sweeps of the subway system for explosives, and U.S. Capitol Police have issued a statement saying the department now has a " heightened security posture." The New York Police Department has also bolstered security, adding 500 more officers and eight K9 units, according to a statement. More than 100 counter-terrorism officers are on unit at all times, the department says.

The moves are representative of those being taken by departments in cities across the U.S. that are surely considering whether they may become the next site of a high-profile attack instigated by the Islamic State group. But while those tasked with protecting the homeland worry an attack is inevitable, they fear the U.S. preoccupation with stopping another Sept. 11 has blinded it to strikes on other much more vulnerable and potentially devastating "soft targets," which in the Paris attacks included restaurants, a concert hall and a sports arena.

Former special agent Paul Fennewald, a bomb and explosives expert with the FBI for 23 years, told U.S. News in February about troubling and widespread lapses between federal security agencies like the FBI that are able to gather threat intelligence and the state and local law enforcement departments that can best apply that kind of information.

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The breakdown in communication still has not been addressed, says Fennewald, who now advises public institutions in Missouri on safety after serving as a homeland security coordinator there. The Paris attacks only further highlight U.S. vulnerability.

"I full on expect it to happen here," he says.

Some French citizens who facilitated the attacks in Paris reportedly became radicalized by the Islamic State group's propaganda and international outreach. The plotters were able to effectively plan and launch the strike by staging in neighboring Belgium, police suspect, and by taking advantage of Europe's open borders. The rates of young people attempting to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State group's so-called caliphate far exceed the resources the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have to investigate them, and a strategy based around reacting to these kinds of reports can only fail.

"We're banking on the FBI being able to interdict themselves before a kid gets on a plane, then straps a bomb on. We need to get ahead of that," Fennewald says.
American domestic security officials, however, all the way up to President Barack Obama are acting as though the attack in Paris, for which the Islamic State group claimed responsibility, has had little if any effect on the U.S.

And for the most part, it hasn't.

"It is business as usual," says former FBI special agent Clint van Zandt, who previously worked in the bureau's Behavioral Science Unit. Counter-terrorism agencies would only react differently if there were active intelligence of another impending attack, he says, which government officials say is not the case now. "Whether France got hit three days ago or not, we know America is high on the list of ISIS, and we know we have to be leaning forward in the saddle 24 hours a day."

Indeed, Obama stymied repeated inquiries during a press conference in Turkey early Monday about how the devastating, coordinated attack that killed at least 129 people in Paris would change U.S. policy, either in its military efforts in Iraq and Syria or in the homeland.

He countered that the U.S. strategy is succeeding in defeating the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, ISIL or regionally as "Daesh."

"Every day we have threat streams coming through the intelligence transom," the president said. "The concerns about potential ISIL attacks in the West have been there for over a year now, and they come through periodically."

A Homeland Security official speaking on the condition of anonymity repeated that no credible threats exist and confirmed that nothing has changed at the department, created in the wake of the 2001 terror attacks to coordinate U.S. governmental efforts to prevent and manage terrorist threats. It will continue to work with foreign partners and takes seriously threats by the Islamic State group to attack Western targets, the official says, and will adjust security measures as necessary.

National Guard troops working with local police at New York City transportation hubs stepped up their presence over the weekend as a part of its Joint Task Force Empire Shield that has been in place since 2001, and a rotation of National Guard units continues to be based in the District of Columbia to help with air defense. A spokesman for the National Guard Bureau told The Military Times there are currently no plans to expand those missions in the wake of the Paris attacks.

Other senior government advisers believe attacks would have to occur much more frequently and on a greater scale to elicit any change in U.S. strategy. A pattern has emerged over the last generation of high-profile terrorist strikes that kill dozens to hundreds, followed by a year or two without incident. This was true for previous terrorist attacks in places such as London in 2005, Mumbai in 2008 and then Paris last week.

"If ISIS were to make Paris look like Baghdad in 2006, you'd have a different reaction from people," says Stephen Biddle, who previously advised Gens. David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal during the Iraq War.

And the Islamic State group has an incentive against ramping up these strikes too quickly.

"[ISIS leaders] are worried about their recruitment profile and their donation profile, and they're trying to combat the perception that they're stalemated," Biddle says. "If anything like this sort of argument turns out to be what's going on with them, then what they want is an occasional spectacular [attack]. They don't want steady attrition that would motivate someone to send 200,000 troops."

But that doesn't mean the Islamic State group won't continue trying to attack the U.S.

"They've threatened that in the past, but I think it's a logical escalation for them to do," says van Zandt. "If one wants to expand their base of recruits, one of the ways you do it is showing success."

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