France ponders security lapses after three-day terror spree
French officials are under pressure to explain cracks in security following a three-day terror rampage that has roiled the nation and left at least 20 people dead.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has acknowledged “failings” in intelligence after a manhunt for the perpetrators of France’s worst terrorist attacks in half a century came to a climactic end on Friday, with police facing simultaneous sieges in and around Paris.
The two brothers wanted for Wednesday’s shooting of 12 people at the offices of satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo were killed in a raid by security forces on the print works where they were holed up, 40 kilometres northeast of the French capital.
Seconds later, police stormed a kosher supermarket where a gunman held several people captive on Paris’s eastern border with the suburb of Vincennes. The gunman was killed, but his girlfriend and alleged accomplice is still at large. Four hostages also died in the siege.
The attackers had long-established ties and a track record of terrorist activities, with at least one of them believed to have trained with al Qaeda in Yemen.
They epitomised Western authorities' fear of homegrown Islamist radicals who receive training abroad and return to stage attacks on home soil.
The scrutiny of France’s security services is likely to be all the more acute given that the main target of the attacks, Charlie Hebdo, had long been in the sights of Islamist groups angered by its cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed.
Chérif Kouachi, 32, and Saïd Kouachi, 34, are thought to have carried out the attack in revenge for the weekly's cartoons of Islam’s holiest figure. A witness said one of the gunmen on Wednesday shouted: "We have killed Charlie Hebdo! We have avenged the Prophet!"
Chérif, who also went by the name Abu Issen, was part of the "Buttes Chaumont network" that helped send would-be jihadists to fight for al Qaeda in Iraq after the US-led invasion of 2003.
US and Yemeni officials say his brother Saïd linked up with al Qaeda forces in Yemen.
French intelligence officials knew Chérif Kouachi had ties with the gunman at the kosher supermarket, identified as 32-year-old Amedy Coulibaly, a petty criminal who converted to Islam and became radicalized while in jail.
Shortly after the assaults, French channel BFMTV said it spoke to two of the gunmen before they died. Chérif Kouachi allegedly told the channel that he and his brother were financed and dispatched by al Qaeda in Yemen, while Coulibaly claimed to be a member of the Islamic State organisation.
The latter, who has also been linked with the fatal shooting of a policewoman in a southern suburb of Paris on Thursday, said he had coordinated his actions with the Kouachi brothers.
A member of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) later said in a statement that the group directed the Paris attack, but US intelligence officials say they had found no evidence to support the claim.
Sifting through data
Security experts have noted the difficulties in thwarting attacks when intelligence services are drowning in data and potential terrorists number in the thousands.
“It is difficult to track the right people. We have so much noise, so much data, but we can't necessarily find the right information and act on it when it's needed,” said Benoit Gomis, a counter-terrorism expert with the Chatham House research group, in remarks carried by the Associated Press.
Gomis said investigations could also be hampered by legal considerations, noting that the oldest of the Kouachi brothers had no criminal record, while the last legal case against his brother, involving a botched attempt to spring a convicted jihadist from jail, had been thrown out.
“You can only do so much within the rule of law,” Gomis said. “You can't arrest them for extreme views. Lots of people will say we should have arrested them, or put them in jail, but we need to respect the rule of law.”
Alain Bauer, a crime expert and advisor to several French governments, said the recent terrorist attacks had highlighted both the quality of intelligence data and the failings in their analysis.
He identified three phases: “first, an exceptional phase during which intelligence services gathered all the right data; second, a deficient phase in which the analysis [of the data] failed to prevent the attacks; third, an even better phase with the police response, the assault, the liberation of hostages and the neutralization of the gunmen”.
Addressing failings in the second phase will be crucial to preventing future attacks, he told France Info radio.it
French officials said several plots had been thwarted in recent weeks, underscoring the scale of the terrorist threat.
European officials estimate that some 3,000 people have left the continent to join jihadist movements in the Middle East and North Africa, though many experts believe the figure is much higher.
On Saturday, France's prime minister said "between 1,200 and 1,400" French nationals had travelled to Syria and Iraq to join jihadist groups there.
Many have returned home, with the kind of combat training that was on display in the clinically efficient massacre at Charlie Hebdo.
Intelligence officials decline to reveal specifics about their terror watchlists, but it is believed they include thousands of people around Europe. Keeping every one of them under surveillance presents security services with a daunting challenge.
“It takes 20 officers to follow a single suspect around the clock,” said counter-terrorism expert Pierre Conesa, who teaches at Sciences-Po Paris. “No intelligence service in the world has the capabilities to do so for every suspect,” he told FRANCE 24.
Both Bauer and Conesa said France’s security apparatus failed to draw on the insight and expertise of academics and community leaders.
“Muslim leaders are mobilized against radicalism, they must be a part of our counter-terrorism strategy,” Conesa said. “They are the early warning system, they know the families, they know the community. They can alert [the authorities]”.
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