French 2015 terror attacks a ‘dress rehearsal’ for 2016, experts say
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French anti-terrorism experts believe the two major attacks in Paris in 2015 were a “dress rehearsal” for more professional and better-organised terror attacks on a much larger scale in 2016.
The January 2015 attacks on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo – which had angered many by publishing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in 2006 – was the first in three days of attacks that claimed a total of 17 lives.
On November 13, gunmen in Paris killed 130 people in a series of coordinated attacks, the deadliest assault on French soil since World War II.
As bad as the carnage was, many experts agree that with the number of attacks on a definite upward swing, the threat will get much worse in the coming year.
"Unfortunately, I think 2015 was nothing," an unnamed French senior counter-terrorism official told AFP last week. “We are moving towards a European 9/11: simultaneous attacks on the same day in several countries, several places. A very coordinated thing. We know the terrorists are working on this."
‘Preparing for the worst’
The January and November attacks, for all the bloodshed they achieved, were worryingly “amateur”, according to Yves Trotignon, a former member of the French DGSE intelligence service.
“The November 13 attacks, from the terrorists’ point of view, involved a large number of tactical mistakes that they will learn from,” he told FRANCE 24. “For example, the death toll at the Bataclan [music venue, where 89 people were killed] was limited because the attackers ran out of ammunition.”
“At the Stade de France the bombers were unable to get into the stadium,” Trotignon added. Three suicide bombers blew themselves up outside the arena, killing one person. “And the suicide vests turned out to be less than lethal for bystanders, while at least one failed to detonate and was abandoned.”
This poses a particular problem for France’s intelligence services, he said, as terror cells “learn from their mistakes, are very discreet, don’t use phones or the Internet to communicate, and don’t keep incriminating evidence in their homes”.
The lack of evidence, even if terrorists are on the radar of security services, means little can be done to stop attacks without proof they are being planned.
Not even the state of emergency declared after the November attacks (which expires at the end of February) has made much difference.
“There have been barely a dozen arrests in France as a result and France cannot continue in a perpetual state of emergency,” Trotignon said.
“Very serious questions have to be asked about why the security services were unable to prevent the November 13 attacks,” he said. “They will be, quite rightly, preparing for the worst in 2016.”
A new breed of terrorist
Jean-Charles Brisard, chairman of the Centre d’Analyse du Terrorisme (Centre for the Analysis of Terrorism) think-tank and chief investigator for the families of 9/11 victims, shared Trotignon’s pessimism.
“There will definitely be more November 13-type attacks being planned against targets in France and Europe,” he told FRANCE 24, pointing out that “this kind of attack is not new”, having proved its shock value in Mumbai in 2008.
“We have seen significant evolution since 2013 towards individuals acting under orders from the Islamic State (IS) group,” he said. “These small groups are getting much more organised, and they are getting much more help in planning and preparation from IS group controllers.”
Brisard said Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Moroccan-born organiser of the Paris attacks who was killed in a police raid in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis on November 18, was a typical example of a new breed of terrorists.
“This was a man with a criminal background followed by radicalisation and experience waging jihad in Syria,” he said. “Abaaoud had an established network, access to firearms and logistical support. A terrorist with this profile, if better organised, could in time launch much bigger attacks.”
‘Don’t cede to panic or despair’
Both Brisard and Trotignon said France had been dealing with a jihadist terror threat since at least 1994 and that the security services were fully aware of the escalation of the terror threat.
According to Brisard, beyond improving domestic security, securing the borders of Europe’s Schengen free-travel zone should be European nations’ top priority.
“This is a very European problem – not just French – and it is essential that the borders of the Schengen zone are properly controlled and that European countries start sharing intelligence properly,” he said. “Excellent bilateral relations exist, but multilateral intelligence sharing is poor and it must be improved.”
And while the threat of potentially much larger attacks is depressingly real, “people, the young especially, must learn to live with the reality of terrorism and not cede to panic or despair, which is exactly what the terrorists want”, Brisard said.
“The IS group and its threat to Europe will be defeated, but it will take years,” he said. “The longer problem will be to understand and defeat the ideology that spurs people, many who were born in France, to commit terrorist acts against their fellow citizens. It could take a generation to achieve this.”