What France Needs to Learn From the U.S. About Fighting Terrorism

The French government is now considering a complete overhaul of its intelligence agencies to address the persistent threat of terrorism.

Soldiers pass by the new makeshift memorial in tribute to the victims of the deadly Bastille Day attack at the Promenade des Anglais, Nice, France, July 19, 2016.
Valery Hache, AFP

REUTERS - The horrifying truck attack in Nice, France, that killed at least 84 people is the 10th strike in the country since the beginning of 2015. The murder of a priest in his Church in Northern France the morning of July 26th is now the 11th. As a result of this wave of terror, the French government is now considering a complete overhaul of its intelligence agencies to address this persistent threat.

A French parliamentary commission released a report earlier in the month that recommended the government fuse all its security services into one large “national anti-terrorism agency.”

Such an approach would mirror Washington’s National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), a bureaucracy created in the years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The objective was to break down barriers within the U.S. government and pull together all agencies and departments related to terrorism issues.

But Paris should try to improve on Washington’s experiences. It certainly needs to avoid making the same mistakes.

France’s law enforcement and intelligence communities are similar to Washington’s in that they have their own cultural differences, opaque turf wars, resource constraints and labor problems. None of these issues, as Americans realized, would likely be resolved overnight by legislation.

More important, standing up and successfully deploying an organization like the National Counterterrorism Center requires each other law enforcement and intelligence division to cede power, share intelligence and provide personnel.

Are the French going to decide that the attacks in 2015 and this year are such a grave threat to national security that leaders and employees will accept a total change in the way they have been doing business for decades?

Because severe structural agony will most certainly occur. NCTC, under the overarching control of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, was viewed with great suspicion and skepticism when it was created in 2004. Numerous problems have been resolved since then, but many critics still view the agency as a shrunken head atop a lumbering body.

Why? Because even now, real decision-making power still remains within the individual intelligence and law-enforcement organizations, whether that means the Department of Defense, the CIA, the FBI or some other agency or department. The counterterrorism center can’t compete because it doesn’t really control any of the relevant pieces. Many of its personnel are actually employees loaned from various other agencies. It can’t even bring a knife to a bureaucratic gunfight because it doesn’t own most of its own cutlery.

In fact, forcibly putting disparate groups into one bureaucratic mega-organization can create real problems. In 2002, multiple security-focused organizations were mushed together like Play-Doh to create the Department of Homeland Security. It still lacks a permanent headquarters and is consistently ranked by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey as the “worst place” to work in the U.S. government.

Of course, the counterterrorism center does possess some strengths because it can serve as the hub for sharing counterterrorism intelligence across the entire government. It also helps break down walls among the intelligence services.

But it remains essentially a coordinating body. As Jean-Charles Brisard, director of the French Center for the Analysis of Terrorism recently told the Washington Post, “We have reached in France a point where we have more coordinating bodies than we have intelligence services.”

In any case, it’s unclear if a French iteration of the counterterrorism center could have done much to stop the assault on the "Charlie Hebdo" offices in January 2015, or the attack on Bataclan concert hall and various cafes in Paris on Nov. 13, 2015. Some of the killers were known to authorities, others not.

French intelligence had been monitoring one of the "Charlie Hebdo" killers, Said Kouachi, for example, but had stopped because he didn’t seem to be a threat at the time and there were other, more urgent suspects. Amedy Coulibaly, who killed a policewoman and four civilians in a kosher supermarket that same day, had been in and out of prison. But, again, the police didn’t consider him a top priority.

In addition, many shooters in the November strike were Belgian citizens. So French intelligence would have had to rely on Brussels for information and assistance. The ringleader, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was later killed during a police shootout in a Parisian suburb. How would a central French agency have stopped them?

Instead of creating a new bureaucracy, Paris might be better to examine other approaches when reforming its intelligence communities so they can better grapple with terrorism at home and abroad.

One relatively easy step, for example, would be to pass legislation that broadens punishments for those involved, even tangentially, with terrorist cells operating in France. A terrorism charge in the United States that could mean a 25-year prison sentence currently results in only three years behind bars in France.

Another example would be to commit more resources to monitoring radicals in France’s prisons. France is also experimenting with efforts to weaken ties between the jihadists and the “persuadables” within the penal system.

Yet it’s unclear if that would have the desired permanent effects. An estimated 1,200 French citizens have traveled to Syria, presumably to fight for Islamic State. Hundreds have now returned. Others within France could have “self-radicalized.” As is evident, it does not take many people to create havoc that can unsettle an entire nation. Additional legislation won’t be enough to prevent the next domestic attack.

Rather, hiring and retaining competent and effective personnel, building institutional capacity, opening up resources and providing real leadership can all help keep France safe. More funding is needed to achieve all this.

In addition, law enforcement and intelligence personnel, from senior to junior ranks, should rotate through other divisions so that all would be better informed about the overall counterterrorism effort.

One long-term effect of 9/11 is that the U.S. intelligence community has indeed grown culturally closer. Individual agencies now better understand each other’s needs. Rotating individuals throughout the French system might go a long way to foster trust within the system. It would help minimize intelligence silos and cultural roadblocks that might hamper France’s ability to stop the next attack.

France should also take the lead in developing a continent-wide database of all European citizens who have gone to Syria to fight for Islamic State or al Qaeda. The United States maintains one at NCTC, but France should orchestrate one for Europe as well. This could help build cooperation across Europe, as other countries feed into the database.

Paris should make this a high diplomatic priority in the European Union. It should also strive to work with nations, such as Turkey and Russia, largely because it’s in France’s self-interest to do so.

Thwarting Islamic State’s efforts across the continent is a European problem, not just a French one. Many nations have returning fighters at this point, so they would be willing to work together. And with the European-wide database, Paris wouldn’t have to rely on Washington for basic information.

Soon after 9/11, Washington had the resolve and wealth to strengthen its intelligence services and also create a vast new bureaucracy. The result has produced great successes, but also some wasteful, costly mistakes.

France doesn’t have the billions of euros to fritter away trying to figure this out over the next decade. Rather, Paris should learn from Washington’s victories, and failures, as it tries to fight its shadowy war against terrorism within its borders.

Aki Peritz is a former CIA counterterrorism analyst and co-author of "Find, Fix, Finish: Inside the Counterterrorism Campaigns that Killed bin Laden and Devastated Al Qaeda."