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Paris Attacks Refocus Attention On Homegrown Terrorist Threats

Thousands of European men and women have traveled to Syria to fight, and some have returned home — possibly battle hardened. The concern is that they haven't come back to resume their lives, but instead have been dispatched by al Qaida or the so-called Islamic State to attack the West.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

All across Europe, there's new attention to homegrown terrorism. Thousands of Europeans have traveled to Syria to fight. The concern is that when they return, they aren't back to resume their lives, but, instead, are dispatched by al-Qaida or the so-called Islamic State to attack the West.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston traveled to Paris to report on this phenomenon. And today, she looks at how serious the threat really is and what counterterrorism officials can do about it.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: I went to the Marais in Paris on a rainy day last week to meet Samia Hathroubi.

Are you Samia?

SAMIA HATHROUBI: Yeah, I am.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Hi. Did you get to buy things during the sales? This is good.

The Marais is the oldest Jewish neighborhood in Paris, and Samia Hathroubi took me there while it was still guarded by heavily-armed police. This was just days after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo magazine and a kosher market.

HATHROUBI: We are, right now, in Rue de Rosiers in the beginning of the street.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Samia Hathroubi is a Muslim human rights advocate with the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. And we walked down a street that looked like Greenwich Village in New York - artisan shops, bookstores, small cafes.

HATHROUBI: But you have also the place where the terrorist attack happened, here in Rue de Rosier, which is a very famous...

TEMPLE-RASTON: That was in 1982 at a Jewish restaurant right here. Six people were killed by machine-gun fire and grenades. Two dozen others were wounded. The Abu Nidal organization was thought to be behind it.

HATHROUBI: Kalab Kalkal. He was the terrorist who made this terrorist attack. He was a French-Algerian.

TEMPLE-RASTON: France has experienced the prospect of homegrown terrorists for decades, but today's version is different. It's global, but reaches into the neighborhoods of Paris. Hathroubi used to teach in those neighborhoods, the sort where the brothers behind this month's Paris terrorist attacks grew up. She said she saw students radicalize before her eyes.

HATHROUBI: Haram and Halal. This is you know, what is forbidden and what is not forbidden. This is the way people and some of the young people are looking at Islam today.

TEMPLE-RASTON: They couldn't speak Arabic or even read the Quran, but they dropped out of school, deleted there Facebook pages and embraced a strict and radical form of Islam. These are the kind of people, she worries, who are going to fight in Syria and Iraq. And they're the kind of people ordinary Parisians worry are living among them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAURENT BONELLI: (Speaking French).

TEMPLE-RASTON: Days after the attacks, the basement auditorium in the Maison des Associations in Paris is packed. Organizers unfold more chairs. People are standing along the wall. They've all come to hear Laurent Bonelli, a professor at Paris 10-Nanterre University, talk about terrorism.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BONELLI: (Speaking French).

TEMPLE-RASTON: "If you look at what's happened recently in Paris," Bonelli says, "you have to look at the history of these men." In the audience, some are taking notes. For most of the people in the room, the main concern is a simple one - how much of a threat were radical jihadists in their midst?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BONELLI: (Speaking French).

TEMPLE-RASTON: "The vast majority of those people," Bonelli says, "won't do anything and aren't a threat." "The problem," he says, "is trying to determine which among them might be a threat." Bonelli spoke and took questions from the audience for more than two hours.

(APPLAUSE)

TEMPLE-RASTON: France estimates that between 800 and 1,000 French men and women have traveled to Syria and Iraq in the past three years. Francesco Ragazzi is a professor at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands and a researcher at Science Po in Paris. And he says trying to figure out who might decide to attack is almost impossible. Just traveling to Syria and Iraq doesn't mean you're necessarily a threat. Just think back to the '90s in Bosnia.

FRANCESCO RAGAZZI: Muslims went to fight and support the Bosnian Army, and sometimes they were enrolled with mujahedin-type groups. They came back. They didn't necessarily want to plant bombs in Europe, and they were not considered the security threats that people going to Syria are now considered as a security threat.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Of course, this is a different time, a time when al-Qaida and the Islamic State are household names. The brothers behind the attacks were already on watch lists, both in the U.S. and France.

RAGAZZI: So, in terms of finding out who, if you want the dangerous people, are, we don't really seem to have a problem.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So they can identify who went to Syria and came back. The challenge is figuring out which ones might make the next step and attack. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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