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String Of Recent Attacks Signals Growing Capacity Of ISIS


In less than a month, the militant group ISIS has been able to launch a series of terror attacks around the world. First, there was a bomb on a Russian plane out of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, then two suicide bombs in Beirut and one day later, the attacks in Paris. Terrorism officials say these are the opening move in a global campaign by ISIS. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports from Brussels.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Gare Centrale train station is crawling with soldiers and police carrying assault rifles, and there's an armored personnel carrier parked outside. That's because Brussels has been on an emergency footing since Friday night. The prime minister has shuttered the city's subway system, and he's canceled the school day today. He's done all this because authorities here say they have specific intelligence that suggests attacks like the ones that happened in Paris are imminent.

REID SAWYER: The coincidental timing of these attacks is just too much to not view these as really a coordinated campaign at this point.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Reid Sawyer is the former director of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, and he says the attacks speak to the increasing sophistication of ISIS.

SAWYER: So not only are they effectively fighting two wars - one inside of Iraq and one inside of Syria - but they've got the organizational capacity to plan and coordinate these external ops - operations in multiple locations.

TEMPLE-RASTON: ISIS can do this because it has a lot of potential operatives around the world that it can call on to attack, and that says something about how the group has evolved. Sawyer says their network allows them not only to attract recruits to come and fight in Syria but to send them home, too. French and American intelligence officials tell NPR that they noticed months ago that ISIS had set up a more formal way to dispatch recruits overseas. What they didn't anticipate was the ferocity or the tempo of the attacks.

BERNARD GODARD: It's not a group like - DAESH is not a group like another.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Bernard Godard, and DAESH is what the Europeans call ISIS, using the Arabic acronym for it. Godard was in French intelligence for 20 years and is considered one of France's most foremost experts on terrorism. He says DAESH's suicide or martyrdom operations are different.

GODARD: Martyrdom - it was people who kill themselves. But then we have DAESH. What is new here - you have to kill maximum of people before to die.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So in other words, ISIS is different from other terrorist groups because it encourages its fighters not just to hit symbolic targets but to choose martyrdom attacks that kill as many as possible. That's why they didn't just shoot people, he said. That's why they had suicide vests. And there's another thing that makes ISIS different. Unlike al-Qaida, which tended to look down on foreign fighters, DAESH has welcomed them so much so, it organizes fighters by language.

GODARD: DAESH understood that they have to use the people.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Officials believe Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected ringleader who was killed in a shootout with police last week in Paris, was one of those people. He grew up in a neighborhood in Brussels called Molenbeek, and police and military were there last night conducting house-to-house searches for a friend of his, a man named Saleh Abdeslam, who police think played a part in the Paris attacks and may be planning something in Brussels.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking French).

TEMPLE-RASTON: At a hastily called news conference after midnight, officials said they had taken some people into custody, but Abdeslam wasn't one of them. Police tracked him to Belgium after the attacks but have since lost him. His brother, in an interview with Belgian television, begged Abdeslam to turn himself in. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, Brussels. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.