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What The Paris Attacks Mean For The Fight Against ISIS


Until last night, many counterterrorism officials had seen ISIS as a regional threat - a group that was focused on Syria and Iraq and building a state there. There had been a handful of attacks in other parts of the world linked to the group, but those were single individuals who said ISIS had inspired them to lash out. The Paris attacks are different. NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston is here to put the attacks in a broader context and to talk about what's likely to happen next. Thanks so much for joining us, Dina.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: You're very welcome.

MARTIN: So let's start with the first question a lot of people are probably asking, which is why France? Why Paris?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, there's sort of a perfect storm of Islamic extremism brewing in France right now. It has the third-highest number of foreign fighters per capita who have left Europe for Syria and Iraq. The numbers are imprecise but about a 1,000 people have left France to join the fight and about 200 have returned. And that's just too many people for security forces to keep track of. In fact, the two Kouachi brothers, the men who attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices back in January - they'd been under surveillance for some time. And officials stopped tracking them just six months before those attacks because they thought they had more severe threats that demanded their attention.

MARTIN: We now know that ISIS has taken responsibility for the attack. But do intelligence officials believe or have evidence to suggest independently that ISIS is, in fact, responsible for this?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, my understanding is that officials first started to suspect ISIS was behind this late last night. There was some sort of conversation or texts that the gunmen were talking back and forth. And they picked that up either shortly after the attacks or just as they were starting. Also, as investigators began questioning some of the people who were in the concert hall that was attacked, some said that the gunmen were saying they were attacking because of France's bombing in Syria.

MARTIN: So why does ISIS suddenly have these international aspirations? Is this mainly retaliatory, or is there some other agenda at work there?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, it's unclear whether they feel somehow emboldened by their role in the global jihad because they've really eclipsed al-Qaida in a big way, or maybe they're feeling like they need to make some sort statement in the wake of their losing all this territory in Syria and Iraq recently. I mean, counterterrorism officials started to shift their thinking about ISIS very recently as it became increasingly clear that the group has managed to put a bomb in that Russian passenger plane that went down at the end of last month. And while U.S. officials haven't said definitively that the group was responsible, the working theory of that crash is that somehow, ISIS managed to smuggle a bomb onboard. Then there were two bombings in Lebanon earlier this week that killed dozens and wounded hundreds of people, and now there's this. So for months, U.S. counterterrorism officials have said that al-Qaida was the biggest threat against the homeland. President Obama said ISIS was contained. And I think all that changed last night with these attacks.

MARTIN: So what is the concern now? What are the biggest concerns now?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, in addition to looking for suspects and accomplices, officials are worried about follow-on attacks. You may remember that just as police were closing on the Kouachi brothers two days after the Hebdo killings, a new attack started at a kosher supermarket in Paris. There's a natural concern that that could happen again. You know, incidentally, I think part of the reason why Hollande moved so quickly to restrict travel is because during the Hebdo attacks, they were searching for a woman who was thought to be an accomplice. And it turns out that she was Coulibaly's French-Algerian wife, and she surfaced days later in Syria with ISIS.

MARTIN: Thank you, Dina.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

MARTIN: Dina Temple-Raston is NPR's counterterrorism correspondent. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.