Experts warn of challenge of stopping future ISIS-inspired terror attacks

A police officer takes position after a fatal shooting which took place at a police station in Paris, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016. Officers shot and killed a knife-wielding man with wires protruding from his clothes at a police station in northern Paris on Thursday, French officials said, a year to the day after an attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo launched a bloody year in the French capital. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

As authorities in Paris investigate a possible attempted terrorist attack on the anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo killings, terrorism experts said low-tech, lone wolf attacks may prove impossible for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to prevent.

According to the Associated Press, a man armed with a butcher knife and wearing a fake explosive vest threatened officers at the entrance of a police station near the Montmartre neighborhood in Paris on Thursday morning. He allegedly shouted "Allahu akbar," Arabic for "God is great," before police shot and killed him.

The man was reportedly carrying a cell phone, a piece of paper with the ISIS logo on it, and a written claim of responsibility in Arabic. Investigators told the AP nobody else is believed to be involved.

The incident occurred minutes before the anniversary of the moment two gunman opened fire at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015, killing 11 people. France was already in a state of emergency in the wake of a series of apparently ISIS-directed attacks that killed 130 in November, but security was also heightened in advance of the Hebdo anniversary.

"The fact that it occurred almost to a minute on the one-year anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attack is an interesting point," said Anthony Roman, an investigation and counterterror analyst and CEO of Roman & Associates. "The likelihood that that's coincidental is low but requires further investigation to verify."

Clint Watts, Fox Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said the timing does appear to be symbolic based on the details released so far. If it was intentional, though, he questioned why the attacker would not have also chosen a target similar to the Hebdo shooting like a media figure or a cartoonist.

"Attacking a police station doesn't reek of a super-sophisticated plot," he said. Between that and the fact that the explosives were fake, "it doesn't look like the guy knew what he was doing other than he wanted to do something."

Although Thursday's attack may have tried to mimic elements of the November attacks, Roman said it "would appear to have the hallmarks of a self-inspired attack rather than an attack that was controlled by a central command structure in which there was training and preparation."

The other attacks involved real explosives, automatic rifles, central command and control, and surveillance of attack targets. Based on initial information, this does not appear to involve that kind of preparation.

The identity and the exact motive of the man killed Thursday have not yet been released.

"Anytime you have an inspired attack, which isn't directed by the terrorist group... whenever you see that, you tend to have people who have more psychological problems," Watts said.

"Whether he's a mentally disturbed person who was inspired by ISIS... or whether he was a normal individual who was inspired by ISIS is irrelevant," Roman said.

If there was no communication with an ISIS command structure, this incident could represent the sort of lone wolf attack that U.S. authorities have often warned about and that law enforcement may find few options to stop.

"You cannot prevent this kind of attack," Roman said. "It's the most significant challenge that police agencies and intelligence agencies have... It's virtually impossible to detect them unless they become active on social media or communicate electronically with a second or third party, but by definition, lone wolves usually don't do that."

"The problem with these inspired plots is if they're not actually connected to a network, there are very few signals to pick up on," Watts said.

As the attack Thursday appeared to be, they also tend to be poorly planned and ineffective, according to Watts. "The most dangerous scenario" is something like the San Bernardino shooting, where an attack apparently inspired by ISIS was well planned and deadly but involved very little detectable communication.

Roman fears that decentralized attacks on soft targets like the assaults on restaurants, a stadium, and a concert hall in Paris in November will become more common.

"This is an ongoing problem and I believe we'll be seeing it at least for the next several years in waves of attacks throughout Europe," he said.

"I think they will have plots like this and things pop up for a while," Watts said, noting that authorities claim to have foiled several potential terror plots around Christmas.

Paris may find itself at the center of such attacks again, according to Watts, because it is home to many foreign fighters, it is close to Belgium, and it is much easier to get to than London if terrorists want to target a major European city.

Roman also noted the disenfranchisement of the Middle Eastern community in France and their difficulty in assimilating with French culture as creating an environment where extremism can spread.

As law enforcement becomes more adept at responding to and preventing ISIS-inspired attacks, he expects the terrorists will change tactics again. Roman suggested authorities need to make contacts and build cooperation with Middle Eastern communities in European cities to work with non-radicalized Muslims who want to protect the greater good.

"There has to be a balance between freedom and safety and protection," he said. "Otherwise the extremists are succeeding in their goals to interfere with democratic society and interfere with daily lives."

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