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Paris Attacks Highlight Struggle To Stop Terror Plots Against 'Soft Targets'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now to domestic security. Since 9/11, the federal government has worked hard to protect high-profile buildings from terrorists. There's been less focus on the kinds of targets that terrorists hit on Friday - small cafes and concert halls. Andrew Liepman focused on counterterrorism during his 30-year career at the CIA. I asked him whether the U.S. should be doing more to protect the kinds of soft targets that were attacked in Paris.

ANDREW LIEPMAN: You know, I think we've been aware for a long time, you know, since terrorists became a threat, that, you know, we could protect some targets. We could protect big targets - the White House and the Capitol building and banks - but the vast majority of potential targets were really not protectable. I think that came home really strongly during Mumbai when most of the targets that the attackers selected were, in fact, soft targets.

SHAPIRO: Of course, there was this high-profile hostage situation in the Mumbai hotel a few years ago. This is the incident you are referring to.

LIEPMAN: Right.

SHAPIRO: So what's the difference between protecting those kinds of targets and protecting, you know, the White House, the Capitol building? Is it even possible to protect those kinds of targets?

LIEPMAN: It's really not possible. I think the strategy has to be not one of protection but rather one of preemption long before the plot actually becomes apparent.

SHAPIRO: It does seem, though, like there are some kinds of initiatives to protect soft targets, whether it's searching bags at a shopping mall or signs that say, if you see something, say something on a subway.

LIEPMAN: Sure, exactly. And I think some level of security, particularly when you have a heightened alert like we do right now, is useful. It's a deterrent. But if you try and guess which soft target, which, you know, sports arena, concert venue, cafe or any, you know, shopping mall, you're not going to be able to guess unless you've penetrated the terrorists themselves.

SHAPIRO: Are there other places in the world that have worked to secure soft targets that we can look to, whether it's Israel during the last major uprising or Northern Ireland a couple of decades ago during the troubles?

LIEPMAN: Sure. I think the Israelis probably during the worst times of the intifada had a rather massive security presence on the street to prevent that sort of random violence. And even then, they couldn't prevent the bus attacks and the attacks on cafes in Tel Aviv. So even with a massive security presence, it's not foolproof.

SHAPIRO: Looking at this from the perspective of the terrorists, do you think the fact that high-profile targets have been so heavily secured in the last decade or so means we're likely to see more targets of opportunity sort of like what we saw in Paris or Mumbai?

LIEPMAN: Right. And the terrorists are after a couple of things. One - sometimes they're just - they want to attack an iconic target, whether it's the Pentagon or the White House or a bank or something that really represents the state that they're trying to attack.

Sometimes, as in Paris and, to some extent, in Mumbai, all they really wanted to do was kill as many people as they could. They're looking at gaining attention. So I do think that in some respect, the lashing out at soft targets represents a bit of a last resort, even on the part of terrorists. They're losing, I think, some ground in Syria. They're losing against the Kurds in Iraq. I think what we're seeing is this being their next weapon of choice - is just killing rather randomly in France or elsewhere outside the region.

SHAPIRO: That's Andrew Liepman, former principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center. He's now a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation. Thanks for joining us.

LIEPMAN: Thanks, Ari. Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.