French intelligence services believed with near certainty that the Islamic State was planning a major attack in Paris but got the timing wrong. They thought the group would aim for the UN Climate Change Conference starting in Paris on November 30, when dozens of world leaders will be on hand.
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The agencies also thought ISIS might strike immediately after the summit, when the security forces would be exhausted. The attack that occurred 17 days before the conference caught everyone off guard.
Former senior defense and law enforcement officials say that despite the many warnings, a system malfunction let the perpetrators — nearly all of whom were known to the French and Belgian authorities — prepare, collect weapons and evade surveillance.
“We’re not surprised in retrospect. Timing the attack to coincide with a soccer game attended by President [Francois] Hollande was perfect from their perspective,” says Alain Bauer, a criminology professor at the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts, a former national security adviser to French prime ministers and a close associate of the current prime minister, Manuel Valls.
“One should remember that this attack came after six months in which security forces were on high alert with no incidents occurring,” notes Bauer, adding that fatigue was only natural.
“There isn’t really a sense of war here. We’re waging a war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, but it’s more like a video game when a plane drops a bomb from 30,000 feet. No one really thought the war would arrive on our doorstep.”
French security experts say a host of factors make it difficult for intelligence agencies to cope with the Islamist terror threat.
Jean-Louis Bruguiere, a senior investigating magistrate for 25 years, dealt with files relating to the war on terror. “The failure is primarily a result of the difficulty of achieving cooperation within Europe when it comes to combating terror, with perpetrators using one country to plan an attack in another,” he says, eight years after his retirement.
The terrorists who committed Friday’s attacks planned their operation in neighboring Belgium. They allegedly received their instructions from Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a 28-year-old Belgian with Moroccan roots thought now to be in the ISIS-controlled Syrian city of Raqqa.
“Even though we’re close to Belgium and share intelligence, each country has its own priorities and sensitivities and each one relates differently to information it receives,” says Bruguiere. “According to Article 72 of the European constitution, security is the responsibility of each member state, not the European Union as a whole.”
It seems that at a time when the EU trend is to oppose increases in interstate cooperation, chances are slim for enhanced intelligence and security coordination. Thus, even if security agencies improve their relations, terrorists will still find it easy to organize in one country and plan in a neighbor.
Another obstacle is a severe manpower shortage. The French internal security agency responsible for combating terrorism employs less than 5,000 people. It is thought to have in its sights around 7,000 Islamist suspects, each with a file labeling them potential surveillance targets.
In a speech Monday to both chambers of parliament, Hollande promised to recruit 5,000 more people over the next two years and double the number of people combating terrorism. But this won’t be enough to track everyone suspected of terror activity.
Security forces also have to address the 2,000 or more French citizens who left to fight with the Islamic State, some of whom have already returned home. And there are thousands of young Muslim men who have been radicalized by extremist websites or during jail sentences for everyday crimes.
In overcrowded prison cells, these people have been exposed to Islamists. Against these numbers, it’s not at all certain that even doubling the security-agency roster will optimize the intelligence effort.
Meanwhile, police and other security forces have raided 168 homes over the last 24 hours, placing 104 suspects under administrative detention and making 23 regular arrests. This week the French parliament will vote on extending the state of emergency for three months, beyond the two weeks declared by Hollande last weekend. This will let the authorities continue using administrative detention, which does not require a judge’s approval.
“Every person who has carried out a terror attack, including last weekend and earlier attacks in Paris and Toulouse, was known to the police and security agencies,” says Prof. Olivier Roy of the European University Institute, a top expert on the radicalization of Europeans with roots in Muslim countries.
“We have here a jihadi radicalization that’s been going on for 20 years. It resembles in many ways the Marxist radicalization that occurred in France in the 1960s,” he says.
“Young people look for a goal in life. What’s changed is the number of people and the fact that this is no longer a case of young people turning to radicalism on their own here in France, but of people being directed by ISIS in Syria.”
No police state
On the positive side, these are only a few thousand of the millions of Muslims living in France (thought to be anywhere between 3 million and 6 million, probably closer to the lower number). But even for these thousands “there aren’t enough people on the ground to handle them,” Roy says.
So far, 1,500 soldiers have been brought to Paris — this isn’t a flooding of the streets with security forces. There’s a realization that only so many potential targets can be protected, such as synagogues and Jewish schools, which received protection after the attack on the Hyper Cacher supermarket in January.
Bauer, the criminology professor, says the Bataclan might very well have been chosen because it was under Jewish ownership until a few months ago, hosting events for Israeli expats.
“One can’t be certain but many jihadi websites identified this location as pro-Israeli, that’s a fact,” Bauer says, adding that the government was right to focus on intelligence and prevention.
“Placing lots of soldiers and policemen on the street is not fighting terror. One needs early information and high-quality intelligence, but that’s not part of our culture, or of Western culture in general,” he says.
“Security agencies know about counterespionage and fighting organized crime, where one works patiently collecting data and waiting for an opportune moment. When fighting terror you have to share information with everyone and you can’t wait.”
Bauer says politicians realize the need to restructure intelligence agencies to combat terrorism, but “it’s difficult to change a hundred-year-old culture overnight.”
Bruguiere, the former investigating magistrate, says that on top of a lack of coordination between European states, France suffers from interagency rivalry, making information sharing all the more difficult.
It seems France will have to change its constitution to give the security agencies more room to detain suspects, track communications and force websites and social media to remove jihadi propaganda, and maybe even to close borders between EU countries. But this would undermine hallowed political principles.
The technical and conceptual failures in the fight against terror only intensify when considering the problems of Muslims’ integration into society and the unclear goal of France’s airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
On Sunday night 10 French warplanes attacked targets in Raqqa, the hub of ISIS operations. But beyond the claim that “France is at war,” Hollande didn’t explain why France was spearheading this international campaign and who exactly France’s allies were.
In his speech, Hollande didn’t mention Syrian President Bashar Assad once, even though France has insisted on his removal all along. This may be Hollande’s first concession, made while trying to bring in Russian President Vladimir Putin, who supports Assad in his efforts against the Islamic State. Other concessions will probably have to be made further down the line.