In the aftermath of attacks like the one in Paris on Friday, which killed 129 and critically wounded nearly as many, two sets of questions tend to arise: How could this happen? And why did it happen?
The “how” questions are what preoccupy investigators for the first few days after such an attack, as they race to identify the assailants and their collaborators before they can strike again. A complex assault such as the Paris operation usually involves many more people than the perpetrators; as of this writing, seven known assailants have been killed, but authorities in France and Belgium, where the attacks are believed to have been organized, are hunting for additional suspects. Officials will also be looking for weaknesses in France’s defenses. How could so many attackers with explosives have penetrated the country? Clearly there was a major intelligence failure. Border security, surveillance capacity, and coordination between security services will be heavily scrutinized.
The next set of “how” questions will be more difficult to answer. The Islamic State took credit for the attacks, and no other group has yet made a counterclaim. But if the ISIS claim proves to be true, how exactly was the Islamic State’s central leadership involved? The scenarios range from the ISIS high command training the attackers and facilitating the attacks themselves to a relatively autonomous group of ISIS loyalists conducting the attacks largely on their own. There are multiple possibilities in between as well; for example, an Islamic State operative could have been charged with organizing attacks in Europe without having to check in with headquarters. The answer is important because it will give clues about whether the Islamic State intends to devote its considerable wealth and military expertise to foreign operations, which would be very worrisome. It is worrisome enough if those affiliated with or merely inspired by the Islamic State organized such sophisticated attacks.