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Paris Attackers' Use Of Suicide Vests Marks Important Change In ISIS Fight


The attacks in Paris were the first time suicide vests had been used as a weapon in Europe. We're going to hear now about the origins of those vests and why their use in France represents a huge change in the way ISIS is targeting civilians. A note that the story begins with sounds of gunshots from this week's police raid on suspects in a Paris suburb. NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston reports.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: This is the amateur video that has gone viral in Paris today. It captures the beginning of a police raid on an apartment building in Saint-Denis. And it was shot just moments before a 26-year-old woman detonated a suicide vest.


TEMPLE-RASTON: A French female police officer is heard shouting first.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking in French).

TEMPLE-RASTON: (Speaking French)? "Where is your boyfriend," the officer shouts. Then you hear the voice of Hansa Ait Boulahcen, the suicide bomber.


HANSA AIT BOULAHCEN: (Foreign language spoken).

TEMPLE-RASTON: "He's not my boyfriend," she screams. "He's not my boyfriend."

TEMPLE-RASTON: The man they're shouting about is Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected ringleader of last Friday's Paris attacks. And he wasn't her boyfriend. He was her cousin. Just seconds later, police say, she detonated her vest. Authorities identified her remains today.

Reid Sawyer, the former head of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, says it's important that nearly all of the suspects in this attack blew themselves up.

REID SAWYER: We've seen very few instances where ISIS or al-Qaida has been able to recruit suicide bombers in the West and to be deployed. And so the fact that they were able to recruit this number and to deploy them inside of Paris is quite significant.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Do they take a jacket like your jacket and put dynamite and tape and...

BERNARD GODARD: It's a vest from a military vest with a lot of pockets.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's terrorism expert Bernard Godard. He served in the French Intelligence Service for decades. He says that making a crude suicide vest isn't difficult.

GODARD: We know it about for 20 years that you can go to Internet, and there is special course for how to use a vest. That's not new. Al-Qaida did that.

TEMPLE-RASTON: But al-Qaida did that in the Middle East and Iraq, not Europe. The father of the modern suicide vest was from Hamas. He was so skilled, he was known as the Engineer. His innovation was casting an explosive called TATP into blocks that made suicide vests more symmetrical. That makes them deadlier by sending shrapnel in all directions instead of just in front of the bomber. That's what happened in France.

PATRICK PELLOUX: (Speaking French).

TEMPLE-RASTON: Emergency room doctor Patrick Pelloux was working the night of the attacks. And he said the attackers put ball bearings and shrapnel into suicide vests.

PELLOUX: (Through interpreter) The types of injuries similar to those during war were mainly in the thorax, the abdomen and the limbs.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Those kind of wounds say something to investigators too. Reid Sawyer says it suggests that the bombs were sophisticated.

SAWYER: The TATP that we believe has been used in these vests at this point, while it's relatively easy to manufacture, it still requires some skill and expertise do so, which suggests that you would preserve your bomb-making capability, that you wouldn't have deployed those in the attacks

TEMPLE-RASTON: In other words, although Friday's attacks are marked by a number of suicide bombers, it's likely the person who made the vests is still alive. French intelligence officials tell NPR that authorities have a man in custody who might be involved. He turned himself in in Lille, a city near the French border with Belgium. As authorities question him, investigators are trying to trace the explosives used in the attacks to a specific manufacturer and perhaps to the man they have in custody. He has not yet been charged. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, Paris. 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.