'Lone wolf' attacks stir debate on both sides of Channel
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In many ways, the profile of a young suspect accused of stabbing a French soldier is similar to the London hacking suspects. The question, though, is how can authorities track potential lone wolf attackers before it’s too late.
Shortly after a French soldier was stabbed in a Paris business district just days after the May 22 hacking of a British soldier in London, French President François Hollande was quick to caution against drawing links between the two incidents.
But as details of the French investigation began to emerge, patterns of similarities between the stabbing incidents on both sides of the Channel became evident.
A day after French police arrested the main suspect in the stabbing incident, French security services – like their British counterparts – are facing questions over whether they failed to catch the early warning signs of yet another lone wolf attacker.
Profile of a radicalised recent convert to Islam
In many ways, the profiles of London hacking suspects Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale and French stabbing suspect – identified as Alexandre D. – share critical similarities.
All three men were fairly recent converts to Islam. British-born Adebolajo and Adebowale are of Nigerian Christian descent and converted to Islam in their teens.
French police officials have described Alexandre D. as a “pure Gaul” and the “son of a respectable family of Trappes” – a multiethnic commune in the western Paris suburb of Yvelines, where he was arrested on Wednesday.
Born on May 30th 1991, Alexandre was a troubled youth who made frequent appearances in a local juvenile court for his “refusal to bow to parental authority”.
French authorities had his DNA profile on record after a series of petty crimes. But since the crimes – including an illegal possession of a weapon and a burglary – were committed when he was a minor, the suspect did not have a criminal record at the time of the attack.
Trappes residents who knew the youth described him as a “nice kid” who claimed he ran away from home after converting to Islam at the age of 18 as his parents refused to accept his new religion.
According to the French daily, Le Monde, Alexandre was a follower of the Tabligh movement, a quietest Muslim revival movement that is considered less political and violent than Salafism.
The drifting, homeless and unemployed young man first came to the attention of the authorities in 2009, when he joined an illegal street prayer in Yvelines in the company of known radicals, which was reported to the DCRI, as the national intelligence agency is known.
"Besides this street prayer, there were no other incidents that would indicate he was dangerous, although he practiced a rigid form of Islam,” said a police statement released Wednesday.
In 2011, he was flagged again when he refused to take a job placing him in contact with women. But the information never got bumped up to a national level, according to the police statement.
With his long, tapered beard – characteristic of followers of a more austere form of Islam – Alexandre caught the attention of Moroccan authorities last year during a visit to Tangiers, according to the French daily, Libération. He was deported from the northern Moroccan port city but, as a French police source told the newspaper, they were no signs that the young man was a “terrorist”.
Alexandre’s frequent brushes with the law enabled French authorities to apprehend him just days after he slipped into the crowd and escaped after stabbing French soldier Cedric Cordier in the neck.
Unlike the London stabbing, the attack in the La Défense business district was not fatal and Cordier was discharged from hospital earlier this week.
A backpack that the assailant abandoned after the attack contained two knives and a bottle of orange juice, from which DNA samples were taken and matched to the suspect, according to French prosecutors.
A diverse recruitment pool
But the seemingly quick detective work does not mask the fact that intelligence and security officials failed to thwart another lone wolf attack more than a year after Toulouse gunman Mohamed Merah was killed following a dramatic 30-hour siege with the police.
“There’s a controversy here,” noted FRANCE 24’s international affairs editor Cyril Vanier, referring to the French intelligence record on the stabbing case. “Did they miss anything? In a sense they did, because the local surveillance branch in the Paris suburb where the suspect lived picked up on information that was not acted upon.”
But in an interview with the Libération Wednesday, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls echoed what US officials said after the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings and British officials maintained after the London stabbings.
The thrust of the argument is that Western intelligence services these days are inundated with low-level alerts on radicalised young men. The vast pool makes it difficult for intelligence officials to assess if and when radicalized youth move from a non-violent to a violent phase.
Valls, for instance, noted that in the first four months of 2013 alone, French intelligence services received nearly 500 notes from local surveillance branches across France.
“This is part of an al Qaeda strategy that is aware that states have the means to fight structured organizations, but it’s more difficult when it comes to individuals acting alone,” said Valls. “There is no typical profile of the radical Islamist. The recruitment pool is quite diverse and we’re facing hybrid and opportunistic profiles.”
French criminologist Alain Bauer uses the term “lumpenterroristes” to describe a new generation of troubled men – often petty criminals – who take on the mantle of political Islam.
But while there’s little doubt the pool of "lumpenterroristes” is increasing, so are the surveillance measures in the US and many European nations.
Both Merah, the Toulouse gunman, and London stabbing suspect Adebolajo were known to domestic intelligence services. In the case of the Boston bombings, Russian intelligence officials had alerted their US counterparts about Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s suspicious travels to Dagestan months before the attack.
“It depends on whether you see the glass half-empty or half-full,” said Vanier. “All these attackers – in Boston, London and Paris – had come up on the radar of Western intelligence services. So it does suggest they’re looking in the right places, they’re ticking the right boxes and it’s the right kind of signals that are alerting authorities.”