France attacks show need to change security tactics
PARIS // As French forces confronted new terrorist threats in Paris on Friday, security experts said officials may need to change their protocol for surveillance and thwarting planned attacks such as the one on the Charlie Hebdo offices on Wednesday.
Two of the attackers, Cherif Kouachi and his brother, Said – French-born sons of Algerian immigrants – were known to French authorities as potential threats, and were both on the US government’s “no fly” list, as well as a number of other FBI terror watch lists.
Germany has said the pair also were on a European watchlist, put together by countries in the European Union’s passport-free Schengen travel zone and used by border guards.
Yemeni officials, meanwhile, confirmed that Said, 34, had trained in Yemen with Al Qaeda.
Cherif, 32, was arrested in France in 2005 for his role in recruiting militants to fight in Iraq, and was sentenced to three years in prison.
In 2010, he was arrested again in connection with the failed jailbreak of a mastermind behind the 1995 bombings in the heart of Paris that killed eight people and injured more than 200. Cherif was not charged, due to lack of evidence.
The former pizza deliveryman even featured in a 2005 French television documentary about militants, called “Pièces à conviction”, or “Elements of Evidence”. He was portrayed as a fresh young member of a group who followed a self-proclaimed spiritual leader, and was training to become a Muslim holy warrior.
The cleric “told me that [holy] texts prove the benefits of suicide attacks”, he says in the programme. “It’s written in the texts that it’s good to die as a martyr.”
So how could these men manage to successfully pull off France’s deadliest terrorist attack in decades, despite their known links to terrorist networks?
“They were under surveillance, but not all of the time,” said Eric Denece, director of the Paris-based French Centre for Intelligence Research. “The problem with this type of surveillance is that these groups know the patterns and how they are being monitored. So they stopped having regular meetings, they stopped communication with other terrorist organisations, and so security decided to stop part of the surveillance.”
While the men were red-flagged when they were involved in radical activity, they had since remained quiet and had not done anything wrong according to French law – and had therefore somewhat slipped from radar.
“The problem with this is that the French security services need to change the way they do their monitoring of terrorists,” Mr Denece said. “We have to understand the people we are fighting, and how they deceive us. We have to change the way we manage them.”
Stephanie Pezard, a French security policy expert at the Washington-based nonprofit security group Rand, said that internal investigations after the dust settles could reveal holes.
“The concern is that maybe intelligence services had not picked up on important facts on these individuals, and perhaps could have done a better job monitoring them,” she said. “They were definitely on the sight of the French services, but now the question is how often they can monitor them – they cannot monitor everyone every day. But how often? They may have done their best, or they may have missed something.”
At least 1,200 citizens are or have been involved in the Syrian war, French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve told parliament last month. He said about 60 had been killed and 185 had returned to France – of whom 82 were in jail and 36 others under some form of judicial control.
Jack Cloonan, a former FBI special agent, said the events this week would forever change how France addresses its surveillance programmes.
“The French government will now have to do some very serious soul searching,” said Mr Cloonan, who now works with the global crisis management group red24. “The US was criticised after September 11 for not being able to connect the dots, and treating these issues as law enforcement rather than issues of national security. This will now shift France’s strategy to predictive analysis, which is something they will be reluctant to do.
“The French are loath to put into practice something like the Patriot Act, or electronic surveillance or data mining,” he stressed. “How will they predict what is planned by two or three people who are loosely associated to groups and can be self-radicalised? How much are the French willing to give up a bit of their personal liberty to protect themselves?”
Updated: January 10, 2015 04:00 AM