Why Did France Fail to Prevent the Paris Terror Attacks?

Seven of France’s security and intelligence shortcomings, which, if resolved, could prevent the next strike.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Members of the GIPN and RAID, French police special forces, walk in Corcy, northern France, on January 8, 2015
Members of the GIPN and RAID, French police special forces, walk in Corcy, northern France, on January 8, 2015Credit: AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The shortcomings of France’s security and intelligence agencies have stemmed mainly from insufficient resources. The threat before last week's attacks was known, France has legislation to act against terror suspects in ways that would be unconstitutional in other countries, and its intelligence- and special-forces capabilities are first-rate.

Yet the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly managed to bring Paris to a standstill for three days and murder 17 people before being gunned down.

After Sunday’s planned show of unity in Paris, the French will return to work on Monday and the tough questions will arise. The following are the main issues the authorities face.

Resource allocation. Senior officials have repeated a refrain in recent days, especially following the revelation that surveillance of the Kouachis was curtailed last year: With 1,300 French civilians having gone to Syria and Iraq to fight with Islamist groups, and with thousands of other potential jihadists still on French soil, there simply isn’t the manpower to track each of them. The answer has to be a government decision to urgently allocate more resources.

Misreading the threat. Until last week, the most significant attacks in recent years came against Jewish targets — in Toulouse and across the border in Brussels. Over the last few months, security around higher-profile Jewish sites was increased (as it was at the Charlie Hebdo offices).

But it seems this kind of security is insufficient against gunmen capable of surprising and overcoming armed guards or simply looking to murder a police officer on the street. In a large country of 67 million people, the emphasis has to be on detection and prevention.

Ignoring the older generation of jihadists. Cherif Kouachi was a follower of Farid Benyettou, a young radical preacher active over the past decade in Paris’ 19th arrondissement and who with Kouachi tried to travel to fight in Iraq.

The Kouachi brothers were also in contact with Djamel Beghal, an older figure who was a member of Al-Qaida in its earlier days, even before 9/11. In 2005 Beghal was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Beghal continued to influence young Islamists from jail and afterward during house arrest. The feeling is that over the last two years the authorities concentrated on the new generation of jihadists heading for Syria; they lost sight of the more entrenched threat.

Radicalization centers in prison. At the end of the 1980s, France passed a law letting the authorities jail anyone suspected of having links to groups “planning terror,” even if these people had done nothing themselves.

At any given time there are at least 100 men behind bars due to this law, including Cherif Kouachi at one time. Many of them are mere foot soldiers, but their time in prison, usually with many other young Muslims, has turned the jails into radicalization centers.

The French government has sent moderate imams there in an attempt to deradicalize these young men, but without much success. After the main organizers are detained they are kept in a form of house arrest, but this doesn’t prevent them from staying in contact with their followers.

Gaps in legislation. Despite the law allowing the jailing of suspects, the intelligence services still believe they lack the necessary powers to search electronic communications and the Internet. After last week’s attacks there will be calls in France for new law-enforcement powers — a form of the U.S. Patriot Act passed following 9/11.

Cooperation between agencies. As in any country, intelligence-sharing among agencies and the police under different ministries leaves something to be desired.

On Friday, for the first time, special anti-terror units — the gendarmerie’s GIGN force and the police’s RAID unit — coordinated operations when GIGN stormed the print works where the Kouachis were barricaded while RAID burst into the Paris kosher grocery where Coulibaly had taken hostages. Such cooperation will have to improve if French law enforcement is to make good use of its resources for fighting terror.

Cooperation between the jihadists. One of the surprising developments in the attacks is the Kouachis’ affiliation with Al-Qaida in Yemen, while Coulibaly claimed to be working for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL.

The two groups are bitter rivals in the Middle East, but their European members are often from the same neighborhood, as it were. Security services back home have to be ready for them to be working in coordination.

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