Big questions facing France

Story highlights

  • Officials say at least 129 were killed in attacks on Paris on Friday
  • Brian Jenkins: Terrorist attacks have come in waves in Paris before

Brian Michael Jenkins is senior adviser to the president of the nonprofit RAND Corporation and the author of "The Dynamics of Syria's Civil War." The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)It was the Mumbai scenario that security authorities everywhere dread: multiple simultaneous assaults carried out by suicide bombers and heavily armed attackers, killing at random, taking hostages to slow the police response.

In the 2008 attack on Mumbai, five two-man terrorist teams armed with AK-47s, extra magazines of ammunition, pistols, hand grenades and improvised explosive devices attacked the central train station, a Jewish center, a restaurant popular with tourists and two hotels where they seized hostages. The episode paralyzed much of the city for 60 hours. Before being gunned down, the terrorists killed 164 people.
Similarly, in Paris, the heavily armed terrorists reportedly struck at six locations, including restaurants, a football stadium and a theater during a rock concert. Some of the attackers were armed with assault rifles. A number carried suicide bombs. The terrorists took hostages at the theater, where the greatest carnage occurred. According to a Paris prosecutor, at least 129 people were killed, many more wounded.
    Knowing they cannot prevent determined attackers from launching such attacks, police train to respond to this type of scenario. The objective is rapid intervention to neutralize the shooters and stop the killing, which occurs quickly and without warning. There was almost certainly no thought of hostage negotiations here as the terrorists had already started executing their hostages.
    French authorities have several immediate concerns. Experienced observers are skeptical that such a small band of assailants could have carried out such an ambitious mission on their own. A detailed examination of the shootings and bomb explosions may show how it was done, but it seems clear the killers must have had some confederates. That would mean some terrorists are still at large.
    To deter further attacks and respond more rapidly to any more violence, the French government has flooded Paris with troops. Authorities may also take custody of some of the suspects they already have under surveillance. Though necessary to avoid immediate risks, such a round-up could include potential sources of intelligence, resulting in temporary intelligence blindness.
    French officials have to be asking themselves how many other attacks might be in the pipeline. This was the fear of American officials immediately after 9/11. Air travel was shut down. Borders were temporarily closed. To prevent further terrorist attacks, al Qaeda's capabilities had to be destroyed as quickly as possible.
    Terrorist attacks have come in waves in Paris before. Bombs placed outside adjacent Parisian department stores in December 1985 were the first of a string of terrorist attacks that would take place over 10 months. The bombing of a Paris commuter train station in July 1995 initiated another terrorist campaign that would last for months. Friday's attack came just 10 months after the assault on the Paris offices of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, which at the time was Paris' worst terrorist attack since the Algerian War more than 50 years before.
    The 9/11 attacks were centrally directed by al Qaeda, which meant the United States had a target to attack and leadership to go after. That may not be the case here. Carrying out attacks like those witnessed in Paris does not pose a high threshold for a small, determined group of terrorists. Weapons are readily available on the black market, especially to those with criminal connections. Simultaneous attacks do, however, require a local leader able to impose discipline, coordination, secrecy, and, above all, dedication, since the operation was planned assuming the terrorists' own deaths.
    But all these elements are theoretically within the capabilities of homegrown terrorists. To be sure, many previous plots have not demonstrated high levels of tactical or technical skills and terrorist schemes are often thwarted because the conspirators fail to adequately conceal their plans. But the distance between the amateurish would-be jihadists we often see and a deadly attack of this magnitude is not great. One highly motivated, reasonably competent individual can make the difference. Central direction, specialized training and external assistance are not necessary.
    Still, it will be important to learn if the attackers were fighters returning to France from Syria, where they may have gained combat and tactical skills. This could lead authorities to new intelligence about their patterns and movements.
    We may also learn whether any of the attackers had been previously known to the authorities. French authorities are being overwhelmed by the task of keeping track of the large number of citizens who have gone to Syria to join jihadist fronts, those who have returned, those suspected of preparing to go, and local sympathizers of ISIS or other groups -- in all, thousands. Resources are insufficient to keep so many people under surveillance. Choices have to be made. It is extremely difficult to predict dangerousness.
    Why was Paris chosen as the target and not London or another European capital? It is most likely not because some jihadist strategist sitting in Raqqa decided that France was to be punished and Paris was the best venue for the operation. More likely, the terrorists were French and decided themselves to carry out the attack. Indeed, on Saturday morning, there were reports that at least one of the attackers was a French national.
    Regardless, while the attackers may declare their operation to be on behalf of one group or another, this is a display of colors, not evidence of direction or even of a direct connection. That will be a key issue investigators are looking into already.