The Paris Attacks: Implications and Timelines for Preparedness in the US

December 14, 2015

As the horrific events in Paris continue to be pieced together, with investigations and raids on terrorist cells ongoing, there is an entirely understandable desire to take action domestically. Action that will undo the harm that has been caused, bring the perpetrators to justice, and prevent this from happening in the United States. This desire is amplified as we see the high profile raids in France, some with deadly results. It is also driven by the heated rhetoric fueled by U.S. election cycle politics about Syrian refugees, as well as other immigration and security issues. Unfortunately, these reactions have become a regular occurrence as we have seen our own country and others come under attack in the years since 9/11. But how do we prepare ourselves for acts of terror without sacrificing our most cherished values? And how do we make sure that the actions we take are the right ones, which will reduce the threat of terrorism now and into the future? To find a way ahead, we must look at these threats and our response across multiple timelines so that we can apply the right tools and approaches, understanding that any action has long-term repercussions.

Looking at the days following the attacks in Paris on Nov. 13, French and European security forces continue to take actions to disrupt any potential follow-on threats, and to identify and bring the terrorists to justice. First responders in the United States should, and presumably are, looking at their security posture and response protocols for an attack like this, as well as investigating potential threats. The general public should also use this as an opportunity to look at their own personal preparedness, and continue to show solidarity with those affected by this tragedy. Benevolence should also extend to the indirect victims who have been harassed or demonized out of the fear these attacks create. Compassion is perhaps the most important act we can take in the near term, as it reminds us that we are stronger and more resilient than our adversaries.

Looking ahead to the weeks and months that follow, the lessons from these attacks should be integrated more fully into our preparedness programs. While the specific attacks in France were a surprise, the threat of small unit, multi-dimensional attacks has been expected. The migration of radicals fighting for ISIS and other extremist groups has been on the radar of the intelligence community for some time. We must no longer treat this as a planning scenario, but as an active threat. First responders outside of the affected area should be looking at the tactics and methods used by the terrorists, and lessons learned from the Parisian response, in order to enhance their own planning, training and exercise programs. As Paris begins to recover from these attacks we should also learn from their recovery, and be ready to provide support if needed.

Looking years ahead we must understand how to strategically invest in preparedness, and how the consequences of our actions impact our vulnerability over time. The policy and research communities are particularly important for informing this perspective. This should include more robust and long-term funding to provide the knowledge and capacity necessary to combat these threats at home and abroad.  There should also be a generational view of terrorism, with an understanding that those who have taken up arms in the name of terror, were not born this way. Somewhere along the way they were lost, and found themselves within ideologies of hate and extremism. Without this long-view, we will only be able to react to these events as they inevitably occur within our borders.

Finally, the tools for the long-term cannot become confused with those for the immediate response.  Too often, polices with implications years and decades into the future are wielded to solve short-term problems. Near term budget solutions that have cut first responder preparedness programs have also reduced the capacity to respond to the kinds of attacks we have seen in Paris and elsewhere. The conditions for the growth and emergence of terrorism from failed states has also, arguably, been the result of taking a short-view with key foreign policies. Consideration of long-term consequences can be frustratingly slow in a democratic process, but it is also a consequence of being better. The inclusion of science, multiple perspectives, a plurality of values, and a humane respect for those that may not deserve it, are why the free nations of the world are the beacon of hope for those fleeing tyranny. It is why we demand better of our governments to prevent this kind of attack, and ultimately it is why we will outlast proponents of hate and extremism wherever they reside.