How the planners of the 2015 Paris attacks were systematically eliminated
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In his latest book, French journalist and writer Matthieu Suc recounts how all the planners of the deadly November 2015 Paris attacks, who operated within the Islamic State (IS) group’s “spy service”, were systematically eliminated.
Atar was the head of the IS group’s "CIA", headquartered in the Syrian city of Raqqa at the height of the group’s control over its so-called caliphate.
But France has not touted the supposed end of the dreaded "amniyat" – the IS group’s intelligence services. It’s the subject of Matthieu Suc’s latest book, “Les espions de la terreur” (Terror’s Spies), which was published in French on Wednesday. A reporter at the French investigative website Mediapart, Suc spent four years working on the book, which is the result of extensive reporting on the intelligence gathered by the French services as they combed through propaganda, interviews and information gleaned from intelligence-sharing.
FRANCE 24: You regularly disparaged the official line in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks – which killed 130 people – that it was not due to a failure of the French intelligence services. But now, with the elimination of the planners of the November 2015 attacks, would you say that this marks progress in French intelligence operations?
Matthieu Suc: At the beginning of this period [since the January 2015 “Charlie Hebdo” attacks], the intelligence services underestimated the jihadist threat. It must be said that on social networks, the level of exchange between jihadists was perfunctory and not particularly elevated. Yet, in the mix were jihadi veterans and former delinquents who frequently went underground and quickly signed up with the IS group when it emerged. It was later discovered that they were bright tacticians, not backward or uneducated barbarians. The US understood that with the September 11, 2001, attacks, where there were engineers among the terrorists. The 2015 attacks made it clear to French intelligence that the enemy was in fact talented operationally.
The mass of data that was processed – interrogations, wiretaps, correspondence – has enabled French intelligence to catch up quickly. This can be seen in the [intelligence] transcripts: errors, misspelt names, misunderstanding certain basic Arabic expressions – all of these disappeared as documents were processed. The quality of the work improved tremendously in 2016 and in 2017, thanks to their 24/7 submergence in the jihadist culture. The shock of the attacks of November 13, 2015, and July 14, 2016, [the Nice truck attack, which killed 86 people] sparked a collective awareness within the services of the need to work together.
France 24: You say in your book that international cooperation between Western intelligence services has been at unprecedented levels.
Suc: The intelligence services of the different Western countries have overcome the culture of mistrust that prevailed before, and everyone has cooperated in the common mission against the IS group. The hunt for the jihadists was conducted both to avenge the November 2015 attacks as well as to get to the roots of the problem. From 2015, the paradigm shifted, the international community understood that the Islamic State could strike anywhere in the world. Even the Russians and the Chinese cooperated. The British have been very good at infiltrating the terrorist group and [Israel's] Mossad have been too.
International cooperation identified the existence of an intelligence organisation within the Islamic State, based under the bleachers of the Raqqa stadium. In 2016, there was still doubt about the existence of such a cell, which French jihadist Nicolas Moreau had begun to allude to during his interrogations in 2015. [Moreau was arrested in France in 2015 upon his return from Syria and sentenced to 10 years in jail.]
There are many things that are still unknown about the intelligence agency – named amniyat or shortened to "amni" – which functioned both as an internal intelligence cell on the application of sharia law and the detection of infiltration attempts, as well as an external intelligence cell that masterminded attempted bombings abroad. The main masterminds of this “jihadist CIA" have been eliminated.
France 24: How has the international coalition operating in Syria revealed the assassinations of these high-profile IS group figures?
Suc: The United States is much less modest than France in speaking openly about the targeted killings of IS leaders. No official French news release announced the death of Oussama Atar on November 17, 2017. That would have meant acknowledging that there are assassinations outside the legal framework. Paris prefers to talk about strikes on geographic locations.
For example, on August 30, 2016, Sheikh Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, the IS No. 2 and spokesman for the terrorist organisation, was killed by a US missile. The death notice released by the DGSI, the French spy agency, soberly declared that the death of Adnani marked the end of the terrorist who supervised the attacks of Paris and Brussels [in March 2016, which killed 32 civilians].
But Paris has regularly given detailed information to the Americans on the presence of high-ranking IS figures in the Syria-Iraq zone to be tracked and eliminated. Cooperation between France and the United States has been successful, to the point that France did not target the planners of the November 13, 2015, attacks – they were eliminated by American bombs. Washington sees France as its "external border" – if the attacks were not happening in France, it would probably be in the United States.
France 24: Can we say today that the IS group's intelligence cell has been neutralised?
Suc: Mossad believes that with the 2017 elimination of the head of the caliphate’s "CIA", Oussama Atar, the branch within IS responsible for the Europe attacks has been beheaded. But the Islamic State group is not defeated – it has been pushed back geographically. The amniyat may no longer exist – the means of a state apparatus are no longer available to their terrorist projects – but one shouldn't underestimate its heritage.
In France, jihad as a subject has receded somewhat in the political discourse. The intelligence people are tired, their efforts have slackened. Everyone is trying to cover their own security service, old grievances are reappearing and new rivalries are emerging. This is a deceptively quiet period, and it would be a good time to try to identify medium- and long-term threats. But I do not see any big moves in this area among French intelligence agencies.
This article was translated from the original in French.