Could similar attacks happen on U.S. soil Not exactly, experts say

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The terrorist attacks that killed at least 129 in Paris have raised major challenges for the United States, according to Jewish officials and security experts. The challenges include tracking the 200 or so Islamic State fighters who have returned to the United States, and moral questions surrounding America’s absorption of Syrian war refugees.

The key takeaway from the Nov. 13 attacks, for which ISIS has claimed responsibility, is that the plotters managed to organize the terror wave in the French capital undetected by Western intelligence, said John Cohen, who until 2014 was a top intelligence official at the Department of Homeland Security.

“We need to come to the realization that as robust as they are, our intelligence community is not picking up on threats,” said Cohen, now the senior adviser at the Rutgers Institute for Emergency Preparedness and Homeland Security.

A police officer patrolling the Times Square subway stop in New York City on Nov. 14 photo/jta-getty images-andrew renneisen

John Brennan, the CIA director, suggested that backlash over the scope of intelligence-gathering after 9/11 has eroded the intelligence community’s surveillance capabilities. “In the past several years, because of a number of unauthorized disclosures and a lot of handwringing over the government’s role in the effort to try to uncover these terrorists, there have been some policy and legal and other actions taken that make our ability … to find these terrorists much more challenging,” Brennan told the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.

There is evidence suggesting that one of the men involved in the Paris attacks may have arrived under the guise of being a refugee, and that the suspected mastermind, Belgian citizen Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was a fighter who had returned from the war zone in Syria and Iraq.

Yet security experts said the United States does not face the same challenges.

In a Nov. 15 New York Times op-ed, Steven Simon and Daniel Benjamin, top former Obama administration national security officials, outlined the differences: Far fewer fighters have returned from ISIS territory to the United States and are easier to monitor, and the refugees now flooding the shores of Europe in cramped boats are arriving in far smaller numbers to the United States and after a rigorous screening process.

“Counterterrorism often boils down to a search for a few individuals, and the chaos surrounding the flood of refugees — a record 218,000 entered the European Union just last month — has exacerbated the difficulty of keeping track of such incoming security threats,” Simon and Benjamin wrote in their op-ed.

“But the United States doesn’t have this problem,” they wrote. “Pretty much anyone coming to the United States from Middle Eastern war zones or the radical underground of Europe would need to come by plane, and since 9/11, we have made it tough for such people to fly to the United States.”

Additionally, tracking the approximately 200 fighters who have returned to the United States is easier than monitoring the 2,000 to 3,000 who are estimated to have returned to Europe, where borders are porous and intelligence agencies do not always cooperate.

Cohen identified one element common to both the U.S. and European arenas: the radicalization of indigenous Muslims. Several of the eight attackers in Paris were natives of France and Belgium, and perpetrators of recent mass attacks in the United States — including those behind the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and the 2009 shootings at Fort Hood in Texas — were immigrants of long standing.

Cohen said U.S. and European law enforcement need to create more intimate relationships with Muslim communities from which potential terrorists might emerge.

Ron Kampeas

JTA D.C. bureau chief