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The Paris attacks are just what counterterrorism analysts have feared since Mumbai. Here are three takeaways.

- November 16, 2015
A guitar reading “Ode to life” is placed at a makeshift memorial in tribute to the victims of the Paris attacks, on Nov. 15, 2015 at the La Belle Equipe rue de Charonne, 11th arrondissement, of the French capital. (Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty Images)

In November 2008, Lashkar-e-Taiba, an Islamist militant group, carried out a series of coordinated attacks over the course of four days across Mumbai, killing 164 people and wounding more than 300. Since then, counterterrorism officials throughout Europe have feared that sooner or later commandos using paramilitary tactics would do something similar in some European capital.

As we know, that nightmare has now come true. The attacks, in January, on the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and, two days later, the attack on Paris’s Hypercacher market were the first taste. We’ve now seen the paramilitary tactic in full.

[How the Paris attacks combined more than a decade of terrorist tactics into one night.]

The necessary caveat: We don’t know much yet. There’s a massive investigation underway, and the attacks’ dynamics are not fully clear.

Even so, we can draw a couple of lessons.

The Islamic State has decided to attack the West directly.

During the first phases of the organization’s rise many assumed the Islamic State was taking a pragmatic approach toward the West, avoiding attacks so it could expand its territory undisturbed.

Then once the U.S.-led coalition attacked the Islamic State, and the group vowed to strike the West, many analysts assured themselves that the Islamic State might have had remarkable military skills. However, most believed that, unlike al-Qaeda, the Islamic State lacked a well-established network of patient and operationally savvy operatives placed throughout the West and ready to be activated.

Many believed that the Islamic State could inspire unaffiliated individual attackers, like the militant who stormed Ottawa’s Parliament Hill in October 2014. Occasionally the Islamic State would directly incite attacks in the West, as when Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, two Arizona residents, in May 2015, tried to attack a show of cartoons about the prophet Muhammad in Texas. Simpson and Soofi launched the attack after lengthy social media interactions with Islamic State operatives.

In some cases, Western militants who had fought with the Islamic State in Syria/Iraq came back and launched terror attacks at home. For instance, in June 2014, Frenchman Mehdi Nemmouche came back from fighting in Syria and killed four people at the Brussels Jewish Museum.

[What do the Paris attacks tell us about foreign fighters?]

As few people may have noticed, European authorities did thwart a few potentially major Islamic State attacks in Europe — one in the Britain (in late 2014) and another in Belgium in early 2015.

But few analysts believed the Islamic State could launch a large-scale operation in the West.

No one believes that now. The Islamic State has delivered the message that “this is just the beginning.” Yes, any terrorist organization will transmit that as part of its post-attack propaganda. But we have to assume that they are telling the truth, and that similar incidents will soon unfold, whether in France or elsewhere.

European authorities aren’t equipped to handle this threat.

Cold numbers make this clear.

According to current estimates, about 5,­000 European militants have traveled to Syria/Iraq to join the Islamic State and other jihadist groups. Unenviably, France has most of them: approximately 1,200.

[The Islamic State’s attacks on Paris are attacks on Muslims, too.]

For every individual who did join the Islamic State, we must assume that many more sympathize. In France, authorities say they are aware of roughly 11,000 suspected radicals.

On average, strict, round-the-clock surveillance of an individual suspect requires 24 operatives a day, made up of eight agents (doing either physical or electronic surveillance) working three eight-hour shifts. If French authorities were to put all 11,000 potential jihadists on their territory under close surveillance, that would require 264,000 agents. Even if all French law enforcement and intelligence operatives were assigned to counterterrorism (something that can’t be done), they’d fall short dramatically.

France isn’t alone in this. European authorities are having to make inevitably arbitrary decisions that prioritize the surveillance of some individuals instead of others. Many, if not most, times they make the right decision. For instance, French authorities have thwarted a variety of plots.

But sometimes the decision is tragically wrong. For instance, after years of surveillance showed no evidence that they were plotting actual harm, France decided to stop monitoring the people who ended up attacking Charlie Hebdo and allocating resources on other suspects assessed to pose a more imminent threat. Monday morning quarterbacking would be particularly unfair.

Legal challenges make the job especially difficult. While legal frameworks differ from country to country, being radicalized and even declaring an intent to join the Islamic State is not criminal. Liberal democracy means that authorities cannot make an arrest even when someone is openly associating with terrorists and talking about terrorism. For instance, authorities throughout Europe have trouble detaining residents who come back from fighting with jihadists in Syria and elsewhere.

Intelligence agencies may know that someone is involved in violent activities. Sometimes, frustratingly, he or she posts pictures on social media of themselves brandishing automatic weapons in Syria. That is evidence for surveillance (assuming the resources are available), but it might not be enough for arrests and criminal charges.

[Here is what social science can tell us about the Paris attacks.]

What’s more, the threat is a transnational one. While details are still scattered, it appears that the commandos behind Friday’s Paris attacks had various international links. Some appear to be from Belgium, the Western European country home to the highest per capita number of residents who have traveled to fight in Syria/Iraq (including an astounding number of militants killed in combat there: 77).

In the past few years, European intelligence and law enforcement agencies have gotten much better at coordinating their efforts. But barriers still exist; intelligence is shared sparingly. (Just think of how difficult it is for the FBI, Dept of Homeland Security, CIA, and U.S. state and local law enforcement agencies to share information and coordinate efforts. It’s no easier across different countries.)

But for terrorists, European borders don’t exist. Like any European citizen, a terrorist can easily travel the 300 kilometers from Brussels to Paris without having to stop to show a passport or ID.

Initial reports show that a Syrian passport was found next to the body of one of the attackers. Some speculate that the attacker was a recently arrived refugee. If confirmed, the news would trigger a political earthquake in Europe — and would show the difficulty of detecting a few militants hiding among the hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers who are fleeing those militants’ terror.

The United States is not immune. 

All this is most challenging in Europe, but the United States is not immune. American authorities say that some 250 Americans have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria/Iraq to join the Islamic State. The United States has 900 active investigations against Islamic State sympathizers, who are located in all 50 states.

According to data gathered by the George Washington University’s Program on Extremism and to be released in a forthcoming report titled ISIS in America: From Retweets to Raqqa, 71 individuals have been charged in the United States for Islamic State-related activities. There were 56 in 2015 alone, a record number of terrorism-related charges for any year since 9/11.

At least a dozen Americans have died fighting alongside the Islamic State and a similar organization, Jabhat al Nusra. A handful of Islamic State-inspired plots have taken place on American soil. And the FBI — like its counterparts across the pond — says that its resources are spread thin.

Lorenzo Vidino, Ph.D., is the director of the Program on Extremism at the George Washington University.