Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1271, (19-25 November 2015)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1271, (19-25 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

After Paris

Counterterrorism measures taken in France after the January Charlie Hebdo attack have proven insufficient, writes Khaled Okasha

Al-Ahram Weekly

The legitimate and predictable question that arose last month was what would be the anticipated terrorist response to Russia’s military intervention in Syria. It is a question directed not only at security and intelligence agencies throughout the region, but also to politicians and all other parties keen to limit the potential dangers.

The Russian intervention, with military forces deployed in strategic locations, marked the creation of a second coalition with the same aim as the first — namely, to fight terrorism and terrorist militias.

This critical development propelled the question of terrorist reactions to the fore. But the parties involved did not display much enthusiasm to produce a correct answer. Talk of heading to the Vienna conference, to speak in air-conditioned chambers far removed from realities on the ground, worked to seriously skew the equations involved in intelligence assessments, with the result that subsequent events would stagger narrowed perceptions.

Any proper risk assessment should have included an anticipation of an Islamic State (IS) response beyond the immediate boundaries of the theatre of operations. Those who did factor in such a possibility minimised the likelihood that the response would reach influential areas.

And if they didn’t minimise the risk, they assumed it would be limited, predictable and containable. They fell into the same trap that all parties involved in the Syrian crisis have succumbed to: underestimating the enemy. This includes members of the US-led coalition, such as the European nations and Turkey, and members of the Russian-led coalition, including Iran, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime.

More dangerous than falling into the trap of underestimating the abilities of IS are the ongoing dealings by parties in both camps with the terrorist group and others connected to it. This has given IS the advantage of more opportunities to read its potential adversaries, to better gauge its responses in ways that will inflict the most pain, cause the largest number of casualties and claim the greatest gains for itself.

It would be very difficult for anyone to claim the luxury to suggest conclusive answers on a terrorist attack of the magnitude of that which occurred on that heartrending Friday evening in Paris. To call it catastrophic is no exaggeration.

We have not even begun to recover from the horror of the gruesome details of the events that unfolded in the streets of the French capital. Therefore, with only a few days separating us from the tragedy, this can only be a preliminary reading.

In what can be cited as an example of our observation above, the French interior minister announced 72 hours before the attack that French intelligence had acquired information suggesting the possibility of a terrorist incident in Paris. The target could be a metro line in the capital, he said.

This is a perfect model of the classic routine assessment that shows no sense of the actual danger. Within hours of the announcement, Paris was the victim of six extremely dangerous terrorist attacks carried out simultaneously. French police and security agencies were faced with hell. They suddenly needed to perform a long list of tasks, the least arduous of which was to answer the question, “What is going on?”

As a hasty preliminary response, the police said that several coordinated terrorist attacks had occurred. The first targeted a football stadium filled with more than 40,000 spectators, among them President Francois Hollande. In the second, a terrorist cell entered a packed concert hall, taking the entire crowd of 1,500 spectators hostage.

The third attack targeted a restaurant, which terrorists stormed, opening fire indiscriminately on the clientele, claiming many more victims. As police were responding to these attacks, reports came of three more in various locations of Paris. The police, at the time, did not reveal further details, although it was rumoured that one target was a shopping centre.

After providing these preliminary answers, the police needed to make critical decisions rapidly and accurately. But not only did they have to respond to the situations all at once, they might have to confront armed groups of unknown numbers.

They also needed to move through the streets of Paris freely to conduct the hunt, as it was unclear which direction the terrorists were headed, or even whether they were fleeing to the refuge of their lairs, or whether they were planning to commit more atrocities.

The unprecedented assaults that struck Paris last Friday night embodied the nightmares that have haunted European intelligence and police agencies for months. They had expected such attacks but, quite frankly, they felt practically incapable of preventing them.

Facing the tide of refugees to European cities throughout the summer, among whom European police believed that quite a few of their number were influenced by the ideology of Al-Qaeda or IS, or were even disguised jihadist fighters returning from Syria and Iraq, European security agencies shared apprehensions of terrorist attacks of unprecedented proportions against a major European city.

However, the question of prevention posed the greatest dilemma at a time when European governments were dealing with the refugee problem as a humanitarian and relief question. All parties were focussed on the numbers of refugees that each country would absorb in order to do their part, or at least make it seem as if they were doing their part, to shoulder some of the burden of the Syrian crisis.

Although the refugee question deviated from the security outlook and assumed another dimension, French authorities had previously moved to tighten security in the wake of the attacks against Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish grocery store. These attacks, which claimed the lives of 17 people in January in Paris, sounded a shrill warning bell.

Counterterrorist forces were increased and given new equipment, armed forces were put on the ready, and a new surveillance law was passed. Nevertheless, all such measures proved insufficient.

The coordinated IS attacks last Friday were carried out by at least eight gunmen and suicide bombers with a high degree of professionalism over a large area, claiming at least 128 lives. Moreover, it was planned and arranged without having drawn any attention. This is the consummate expression of the fragility of the situation and the preparedness of security apparatuses to confront future operations of this sort.

A former French foreign intelligence official told France 24, “There is nothing that can be done. It will never be possible to stop eight determined persons who had been trained abroad, were sent or entered here and who are operated from Syria, from moving into execution mode.”

He continued, “The gunmen from Friday night certainly knew each other before. They were trained in how not to draw attention, how to remain under the radar, and how to move independently and strike together . . . You can, if you want, build a French Guantanamo in Larzac and lock up thousands of young men returning from Syria there. But you won’t succeed in preventing eight guys from carrying guns.”

I share the former intelligence official’s outlook on this complex question that requires a new methodology of confrontation radically different from all readymade methods.

All the assailants wore suicide belts or explosive jackets, which they detonated in the course of carrying out their attacks before the police could kill them. This, too, was a precedent in France, although we have encountered it in many places in the Arab region, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia. These are mobile mines capable of killing large numbers in a second.

The recent attack is also a sign that there are a number of terrorist cells in France, that they have access to a bomb-making expert who fabricates the explosive belts and jackets (which requires certain skills). This, too, is new to Europe and will undoubtedly shape one of the lines of intelligence investigations.

Specialists on the subject know that explosives experts are very valuable and never take part in the attacks. Therefore, the person responsible for making the explosive belts and jackets in this attack is still at large, in safe hiding in a secret place provided by groups that may be planning future operations.

That Paris and other capitals are taking part in the war against IS in Iraq and Syria and against its franchises elsewhere, such as the Sinai and Libya, raises the question of IS’s recruitment of thousands of volunteers from around the world, including from many countries in Europe.

Also of concern is the phenomenon of Internet denizens who subscribe to jihadist ideas and who, since Friday night, have been posting messages on social networking sites praising the attacks and their perpetrators and vowing more to come.

The writer is director of the National Centre for Security Studies.

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