NEW YORK (AP) — From cafes to sports stadiums in the heartland, the bloodbath in Paris is forcing Americans to ponder the awful possibility of terrorist attacks on “soft targets” in the U.S. such as restaurants, bars and other ordinary gathering spots.
“Maybe I’m more jittery,” said Jordan Veneman, sitting at La Colombe cafe in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood. He said that when a car backfired shortly after the attacks in France, he immediately thought of a bomb.
Counterterrorism experts say well-coordinated assaults carried out by foreigners are less likely in the U.S., in part because of tougher accessibility to the mainland and better intelligence-gathering since 9/11. But they acknowledge such attacks cannot be ruled out.
They worry even more about the possibility of “lone wolf” attackers who may have no direct connection to extremist groups such as Islamic State but embrace their ideology. The 2013 Boston Marathon bombings that killed three people and injured more than 260 were carried out by two brothers with no direct ties to terrorist groups but who acted in retaliation for U.S. actions in Muslim countries.
“It’s impossible to protect everything and everyone all the time,” said Lauren C. Anderson, a retired FBI official who served in Paris and headed the international terrorism program for a New York task force.
She said intelligence-gathering and sharing is crucial, but added that everyone has a role: “The front line when we’re talking about this now is people being aware of what’s going on around them.”
In the crowded lobby of the Ace Hotel in Manhattan’s Garment District, Daniel Bellino, who works in the restaurant industry, said authorities in New York, where memories are seared with images of 9/11, have done “a great job” heading off attacks, but there are limits to what can be done.
“You could do many things, and you stop 90-something percent of planned attacks, but miss some,” Bellino said. “I’m happy nothing has happened. Yes, I do worry about it, but I’ve got regular things of life to worry about.”
A soft target is any place that is largely unprotected, unlike a military installation or a government building.
Americans have seen what an attack on a soft target can look like. A gunman in body armor killed 12 people in a suburban Denver movie theater in 2012. But the killer was a mentally ill American graduate student with no political agenda. Similar mass shootings have been carried out in schools.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio told the first 120 members of a new 500-officer-strong counterterror unit on Monday that the city “is the chief terror target in the country,” and daily vigilance is needed.
The New York Police Department’s counterterror units can now respond to as many as two dozen active shooting situations at once, having learned from such tragedies as the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, in 2008, officials said. Intelligence officials also monitor social media postings, and detectives press informants for information on possible plots.
At the University of Dayton in Ohio, Mark Ensalaco, who has studied Middle East terrorism and is the school’s director of human rights research, said the greater immediate threat in the U.S. is probably from homegrown Islamic State sympathizers who the FBI says are being recruited constantly, often through social media messages that urge them to commit violence on their own.
“The possibility of lone wolves carrying out attacks, that’s high, and I’m concerned that it can be even higher if they’re inspired by this,” Ensalaco said of the Paris attacks.
The carnage is also likely to lead to debate in this country about stepped-up law enforcement monitoring versus the cost in privacy and freedom of movement.
“For me, after 9/11, I live with this duality,” said Andreas Petrossiants, a New York University student sipping a coffee outside Greenwich Village’s Third Rail Coffee. “I want more protections, but I don’t want them to infringe upon me.”
In Cincinnati, police in cruisers and vans were parked along streets and officers patrolling on bicycles were highly visible Monday evening around the stadium where the NFL’s Bengals played the Houston Texans.
Bengals fan Scott Kiser said his 17-year-old son Donovan asked him before he left for the game if he was worried about being in a potential terrorist target area.
“I told him, buddy, they could set off a bomb in Iowa or anywhere else,” he recalled replying. “We have to keep living our lives. That’s what they want — for us to be afraid.”
Sewell reported from Cincinnati. Verena Dobnik and William Mathis in New York contributed.
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