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After Paris, reassessing how nations thwart attacks

Mourners seen carrying one of the bodies for burial during the funeral ceremony at Jerusalem's HarHaMenuchot cemetary for the four Jewish victims in the Paris Hyper Cacher attack, Jan. 13, 2015.  (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Mourners seen carrying one of the bodies for burial during the funeral ceremony at Jerusalem’s HarHaMenuchot cemetary for the four Jewish victims in the Paris Hyper Cacher attack, Jan. 13, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

WASHINGTON (JTA) – These are the lessons of the Paris attacks for American Jews and U.S. law enforcement: Keep calm and cooperate.

Enhanced communication between governments has been a key element of America’s counterterrorism successes since 9/11, experts say, and more is planned in the wake of last week’s attacks in France that left 17 dead.

President Obama announced this week that Washington will host a summit on Feb. 18 aimed at improving communications between nations that are would-be targets of terrorists. The U.S. secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, also outlined plans on Monday for better cooperation across national police forces and among U.S. law enforcement agencies to identify terrorist threats.

“Together with our colleagues in the U.S. law enforcement and intelligence communities, this department will continue its efforts to partner with the governments of France and other key counterterrorism allies to share information about terrorist threats and individuals of suspicion,” Johnson said in a statement. “We will recommit to these engagements.”

Information sharing between the U.S. and European governments suffered somewhat after the 2013 revelations by Edward Snowden, the rogue ex-National Security Agency employee who publicized classified information showing that the United States routinely spied on its allies.

“U.S. authorities have been in discussion with counterparts in Europe, but the post-Snowden environment has impeded information sharing,” said John Cohen, a senior adviser to the Rutgers University Institute for Emergency Preparedness and Homeland Security and until last year a senior counterterrorism coordinator at the Department of Homeland Security.

“I suspect that [the France attacks] will change that environment and lead to better information sharing,” Cohen said. “We have to in a robust way enhance the sharing of information between European nations and the United States.”

In France, following the attacks on a satirical weekly and kosher supermarket, and the shooting of a police officer, there were renewed calls for a French version of the U.S. Patriot Act, which facilitated information gathering after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Cherif and Said Kouachi, the two brothers who attacked the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, reportedly received weapons training in Yemen, had declared their allegiance to al-Qaida and were on no-fly lists. Amedy Coulibaly, the captor who took hostages and killed four at the kosher supermarket Hyper Cacher, also reportedly was known to U.S. security officials.

French authorities are still seeking six accomplices in the attacks, French reports said Tuesday, suggesting that the captors may have belonged to a larger terrorist cell.

One of the threats that most concerns Western security agencies are the Western fighters who go to Middle East battlegrounds for training and experience and then return to their home countries. A study published this week by the Brookings Institution says there are about 4,000 European fighters in Syria. U.S. officials have said 100 U.S. citizens have fought for the Islamic State, the jihadist group also known as ISIS to which Coulibaly pledged allegiance.

Paul Goldenberg, who directs security for the U.S. Jewish community, said that sharing information on returning fighters is frustrated by the fact that Europe represents an array of sovereign nations, each with its own security practices but with open borders.

European Union regulations on data sharing are complex and replete with restrictions arising out of privacy concerns. The 10 pages of regulations governing the sharing of telecommunications data, for instance, allow member countries to retain data obtained from other countries for no more than two years.

Goldenberg said terrorist sleepers often remain inactive for periods longer than two years.

“These terrorist groups are very patient and methodical,” he said.

Potential terrorists can travel easily through Europe’s open borders. Mehdi Nemmouche, the suspect in the killing of four people in an attack on the Brussels Jewish museum in May, was known to French authorities and had been flagged by Germany upon his return from fighting in Syria, but Belgian authorities were unaware of his presence.

Goldenberg, whose Secure Community Network is funded by the Jewish Federations of North America, said the training evident in the Paris attacks portended better planned attacks, even by “lone wolves” who act on their own but have undergone training in the Middle East.

“Everyone is trying to figure out what we do to stop a well-planned terrorist operation against a Jewish center,” said Goldenberg, who was in Paris meeting with Jewish leaders when the kosher supermarket attack took place on Friday. “There were armed guards at Charlie who were executed.”

As for the Jewish community, many best practices remain the same even after the Paris attacks, Goldenberg said, including training Jewish community professional and lay leaders in lockdowns and spotting suspicious behavior.

Jewish communities need more such people, he said.

Another key element is making sure that faith communities and law enforcement are in close coordination. In the Jewish community, that may mean authorities and community leaders keep in close contact about any suspicious behavior at or around Jewish sites. In Muslim communities, that might mean monitoring fighters returning from the Middle East who embed in those communities.

Such coordination is commonplace in the United States but has been inhibited in Europe by mistrust among minorities of law enforcement and by a reluctance among some authorities to be seen as profiling religious communities.

The Brookings study emphasized the importance of engaging Muslim communities and not alienating them.

“The goal should be to move potential terrorists towards non-violence; since many are in that category already, hounding them with the threat of arrest or otherwise creating a sense of alienation can backfire,” it said. “In the past, family and community members have at times been successful in steering returned fighters toward a different path, even getting them to inform on their former comrades.”

Jeremy Shapiro, one of the authors of the Brookings study, said domestic security agencies’ focus on foreign fighters distracts from the overall goal of anticipating mass attacks – many of which have nothing to do with classic terrorism.

“We have had 74 school shootings in the 18 months after Sandy Hook,” he said, referring to the December 2012 massacre of 26 schoolchildren and teachers in Connecticut by a lone gunman. “The foreign fighters thing has nothing to do with that.”

With such attacks notoriously difficult to anticipate because of the challenge of assessing when mentally ill individuals are true threats, U.S. law enforcement has made a priority of tracking individuals known to have terrorist ties.

Last July, the Transport Security Agency enhanced security at U.S. points of entry and overseas points of departure. Now, said Homeland Security’s Johnson, he is considering further enhancements.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told the CBS news program “Face the Nation” that lone wolf attacks are one of his great sources of concern.

“It’s something that frankly keeps me up at night worrying about the lone wolf, or a group of people, very small group of people who decide to get arms on their own and do what we saw in France this week,” he said.