French firemen assisting a wounded person near the Bataclan concert hall
Simultaneously the attacks underscore the increasing issues U.S. and Western intelligence agencies are having in tracking the terror group leading to repeated warnings that their attempts to conduct surveillance of Islamic State suspects were ‘going dark.’
Over the past year current and former intelligence officials say IS terror suspects have moved to more and more sophisticated techniques of encrypted communications using new software such as Tor that intelligence agencies are having problems penetrating a switch that some officials point out was sped up by the disclosures of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The effect played out in deadly style in Paris: At least eight terrorists armed with hefty weaponry and suicide vests and almost certainly aided by a support network plotted and carried out a remarkably sophisticated mass casualty attack on multiple targets without the French or any other Western intelligence agency having a clue.
‘Absolutely this was an intelligence failure’ explained Ali Soufan a former top FBI counterterrorism official who now operates an international security firm that has been forewarning about the hazards presented by IS also known as ISIS ISIL and Daesh for over a year.
Soufan observed that the Paris attack would have needed considerable preparation which includes support from a network of IS sympathizers who would likely have had to support the terrorist perpetrators in acquiring weapons and explosives as well as casing the targets and executing countersurveillance. (Police in Belgium currently arrested three suspects connected to the attacks after tracing a rental car with a Belgian license plate that was spotted at the Bataclan Theatre at the time of the attacks.)
For the past year and a half Western intelligence and law enforcement officials have pointed out the threat presented by foreign fighters which includes as many as 100 Americans and thousands of European passport holders who have relocated to Syria and Iraq to fight with IS and may come back undetected to conduct attacks in the West. (French officials are examining the possibility that one of the terrorists came to France from Syria as a refugee.)
But until now U.S. officials have tended to illustrate the threat as mostly coming from ‘lone wolves’ what one defined as disgruntled ‘glory seekers.’ They have downplayed the concept that IS had either the purpose or ability to carry out the sort of astonishing attacks such as 9/11 that had been the characteristic of al-Qaida.
‘They had made blustery statements in the past’ stated Matthew Olsen who until last year served as the director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) about IS.
But the group had not demonstrated they could carry out exceptionally advanced attacks on Western soil. ‘We hadn’t seen that’ mentioned Olsen. ‘They hadn’t demonstrated they could do that.’
While he mentioned the Paris attacks are comparable in some ways to the 2008 attack on multiple targets in Mumbai India by an al-Qaida allied Pakistani terror group ‘shouldn’t be a surprise’ Olsen stated U.S. intelligence agencies will now have to reflect on their judgment of what IS is capable of. ‘They’ll have to recalibrate the assessment’ he stated. And that undoubtedly means the prospect of a related mass casualty strike inside the United States.