The Islamic terrorist attacks on 13 November reinforce several attributes about terrorism that should be well known. Most important is that the attacks were a product of a living system. The news analysts talked about a network, but that word is too limited and anodyne to be a metaphor for a living system devoted to death.
Before the investigations are complete, many dozens of people will be found to have supported the attack preparations. Well-planned and executed terrorist attacks always are the products of a living system.
According to Miller, in Living Systems, every biological system performs 20 separate functions that are essential to sustain life. In every human body, different organs are specialized to perform the functions. In human groups, including a terrorist group, individuals perform one or more of the functions.
The attackers represent only one of the 20 functions. Unknown additional people, usually invisible to the police, perform the other 19 functions that the group requires. The French and Belgian police are rounding up those others now. The French bombing of Syria betrays some understanding of the relationships in a living system. Communications between the attackers and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria is enough to justify a retaliatory attack to assuage public outrage a bit. Nevertheless, ISIL operatives outside Syria and Iraq behave as independent actors, deriving guidance more than material support from the ISIL leadership. The more sinister parts of the living system are being found in Europe. These terrorists were locals. The specific targets were locally determined.
As for warning, multiple services report that the French were given warnings about imminent terrorist attacks, assassinations, bombings and hostage taking. The implication is there was a failure of warning.
General warnings of this nature, such as those reported to have been given, succeeded in raising vigilance, improving readiness and in speeding up damage control measures. Those measures help keep casualties down, but general warnings lack the details required to prevent specific attacks against discrete targets.
French security was already elevated on Friday, according to press reports, which explains what appeared to be quick responses to the attacks to prevent what could have been a much worse tragedy. The French seem to have reacted appropriately to the amount of detail they apparently had. However, specific warnings are needed to protect individuals, shops and public gatherings. The warning challenge lies in the domain of providing and responding to reliable, specific tactical warnings. No country has solved that yet.
A final point, at this early stage of the investigations, is well-known. Allowing large numbers of undocumented or poorly documented aliens into a country represents an abandonment of any notion of risk management by the national leadership. The Paris attackers helped confirm some of the worst fears of the opponents of open borders. There are Islamic terrorists among them.
Possibly one useful outcome is that the terrorists revealed their presence in the current stream of Muslims trying to enter Europe. That lesson allows time to respond more providently to the next waves of Muslims trying to enter.