PARIS — Intelligence agencies that have succeeded in thwarting many of al-Qaida's plans for spectacular attacks are struggling to combat the terror network's strategy of encouraging followers to keep to themselves, use off-the-shelf weapons and strike when they see an opportunity.
In recent weeks — at the Boston Marathon, in the streets of London and in the shadow of one of Paris' most recognizable monuments — young men allegedly carried out attacks with little help, using inexpensive, widely available knives and explosives from everyday ingredients. In each of the attacks, suspects had previously been flagged to law enforcement and deemed not to be a priority.
There are no indications that the suspects in the recent attacks were responding specifically to al-Qaida calls to act in a vacuum — but their alleged actions closely follow the lone wolf model that the network has been promoting.
A tough debate now rages within the intelligence community — previously focused on searching for al-Qaida cells — on how to assess red flags without violating basic liberties.
Confronting an overwhelming sea of mostly harmless individuals who act suspiciously, authorities are still struggling with questions about how and how much to keep tabs on people who spout jihadist rhetoric online or buy material that could be used to make explosives — or something innocuous.
A French government report last week recommended a radical new approach in light of the 2012 terror in which a French-born radical Muslim attacked French paratroopers and a Jewish school in Toulouse, killing seven people. It called for an overhaul of the country's intelligence networks to combat the rising threat of militants working alone outside established terror networks.
One of the report's advisers, academic Mathieu Guidere, said last week's attack showed that intelligence services haven't learned their lesson.
"They're not originally made for fighting against this kind of threat. They're intended to fight against cells, against groups, against organizations, but not against individuals," he said. "It's a question of adapting. That's why there are the same errors in Boston, London and France. There was identification — but not detention — before the suspects passed into the realm of action."
Easier said than done, counters David Omand, who served as Britain's first security and intelligence coordinator.
"No reliable psychological test or checklist has been devised that can predict when such an individual may tip over into actually taking violent action," Omand said in an emailed response to questions from The Associated Press. "Short of a police state on East German lines the number of such individuals who can be subject to very intensive surveillance sufficient to detect preparations for violent action is but a small proportion of the total — and of course individuals can flip quickly even where they have been checked out previously."
Still, British, French and American officials are re-examining whether opportunities might have been lost in the run-up to the recent attacks.
Guidere and other analysts say rapidly evolving technology and better recruitment of intelligence officers should allow authorities to better track patterns of dangerous behavior.
Peter Felstead, editor of IHS Jane's Defense Weekly, said the problem is the vast quantity of information that needs to be sifted through.
"This is an area where the power of modern technology and traditional human intelligence and tradecraft need to be melded together, so that incidences of behavior that are not immediately apparent in isolation can be identified as part of a larger pattern," Felstead wrote in an email.
For its part, the U.S. government has emphasized that local communities are most likely to spot unusual or suspicious behavior, and has encouraged more outreach to communities that might be vulnerable to radicalization. The federal government has led a nationwide suspicious activity reporting campaign and trained local police to identify potential terror-related activities.
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