ISIS Claims Responsibility For Paris Killings
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The attacks overnight in Paris represent a shift in the way counterterrorism officials see ISIS. There have been a handful of attacks around the world that have been attributed to the group - shootings at a museum in Belgium, stabbings of police and military. This is different. NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston joins us in our studios. Dina, thanks so much for being with us.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: You're welcome.
SIMON: Story's still unfolding, we understand. What are you hearing?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the evidence is that the Islamic State is behind this. In addition to French President Francois Hollande saying that the attacks were the work of ISIS, the group itself claimed responsibility in an online statement a short time ago. And they say the attacks were a response to French airstrikes in Syria and that France would remain, in their words, a top target as long as it continued its current policies.
SIMON: This has been independently confirmed by intelligence officials you've been able to talk to.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, my understanding is that officials first started to suspect ISIS was behind this late last night. There were some cellphone conversations or texts that the gunmen were exchanging while the attacks were going on. And they mentioned ISIS. And here's why that's important. You remember the Mumbai attacks in 2008 that were - those were attacks on hotels and Jewish centers and a railway station. Well, one of the ways that they traced it back to the perpetrators was by picking up phone conversations between the gunmen and their handlers in Pakistan. The information is still coming in, but it appears that something similar happened here.
SIMON: Dina, if this is ISIS, which it seems to be, this seems a real departure for a group - a large-scale terrorist attack against an international target. They've never done that before.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Right, I mean, when ISIS first began to rise, one of the things that counterterrorism officials were really worried about was that ISIS and al-Qaida would begin to compete for the world's attention and they would do that with spectacular attacks against the West. For months, U.S. counterterrorism officials have said that al-Qaida was the biggest threat against the United States. I think that changed last night. Everyone I was talking to was convinced that the sophistication of the attacks that Eleanor was talking about - suicide belts, explosions, simultaneous targets - and the similarity to Mumbai clearly pointed to an al-Qaida-linked group. They didn't think ISIS had the organizational ability to pull off something like this. And now it seems they clearly do. And President Obama said yesterday that the ISIS threat was contained. This makes it seem that perhaps it isn't.
SIMON: And I guess we should remind ourselves, just a few days ago ISIS was also linked to the downing of a Russian airliner near Sharm el-Sheikh.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. I mean, officials said they're 99.9 percent sure that ISIS managed to put a bomb on that plane. U.S. officials haven't been allowed to analyze the forensic evidence on the ground there. But they did have a satellite image of the plane that suggested, from the photograph of the image, a military-grade explosive brought it down. So again, that suggests things have really changed here.
SIMON: Do you know where the investigation goes from here?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the French have the best intelligence and penetration of their communities in Europe. So there's going to be, as Eleanor said, a search for accomplices. The eight gunmen were killed. Seven of them blew themselves up with suicide belts, and one was shot. And Hollande restricted border access right away last night 'cause there's this concern that suspects or accomplices could escape. So this is actually exactly what happened during the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris earlier this year. You'll recall there was a gunman who took hostages in a kosher market. And police were searching for a woman that was with him. It turns out to be his wife. And as they were searching for her, she suddenly surfaced in Syria with ISIS. So they've put all these travel restrictions in place in hopes of avoiding a repeat of that.
SIMON: Dina, France bristles with visible security. This is the second major attack in a year. What makes France this target?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, there's sort of a perfect storm going on in France. It's the third highest - it has the third highest number of foreign fighters who've gone to Syria from Europe. About 200 of those people have returned to France. And that's just too many people to keep an eye on. I mean, in fact, during the Charlie Hebdo attacks, they said one of the reasons why they stopped watching the Charlie Hebdo attackers was because they thought they had more severe threats that they needed to keep an eye on.
SIMON: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston, thanks so much.
TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.