Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1271, (19-25 November 2015)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1271, (19-25 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Paris in the crosshairs

The coordinated nature of the Paris attacks shows how advanced Islamic State’s terrorist network has become, and reveals the nightmare European security services face, writes Ahmed Eleiba

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The world has just entered a period very similar to that ushered in by the 11 September attacks in the US 14 years ago. Those events and the attacks in Paris appear to share many common features, although the details suggest that the capacities of Islamic State (IS) outstrip those of its predecessor, Al-Qaeda.

This may be due, in part, to technological developments in the past decade and a half, and also, in part, to the evolution of the jihadist movement, which has been able to attract members of a generation that is Western-born and well acculturated.

Even a preliminary reading of the Paris attacks shows a number of shortcomings in the ability of French security and intelligence agencies to appreciate the nature of the current wave of “violent extremism” that the West is facing in general, and which the most actively participant countries in the international coalition to fight IS, such as France, are facing in particular.

This failure, of course, serves the interests of IS and has enabled it to attain a qualitative edge in penetrating an ultra-tight security system that had been presumably enhanced in response to developments in France over the past 18 months, a period in which, according to some reports, the country faced 11 threats.

It is conceivable, in light of recent assaults, that IS has managed to complete the structures of its state apparatus, if we may use this term. Through the development of an intelligence agency they now have the power to plan assaults, to penetrate through the narrow gaps in the French security system, and carry out attacks with a high degree of professionalism using teams trained to carry out tasks of a scale large enough to tackle a European capital the size of Paris.

Because of this, the European intelligence environment in general must contend with some serious challenges in the war against terrorism. It is clear that the French authorities did not need to debate the plan they should adopt. They took precautionary measures or pre-emptive strikes, following “plan A”, which, as events have shown, failed.

It is also clear that they knew that failure was possible and that thought was given to what action should be taken in the event that France was struck by massive attacks.

This called into play “plan B”, which includes confrontation in the event of a foreign attack, which means a state of war. Thus military and security measures taken only in extreme situations were put into effect.

A state of emergency was declared, the army was mobilised and deployed, borders were closed, and any hostage-taking scenarios were halted without negotiation in a way that would cause the least possible casualties.

According to some estimates, up to 200 operatives were involved in planning the assaults. Three groups, including around 20 people, carried it all out. Some came from abroad, from elsewhere in Europe; others were already present in France. They were in contact with elements in Syria. It is believed that the operation took months to plan; at least three months, given the attempted assault against the Toulouse military base in August.

The numerous and compound targets identified by the masterminds of the attack bring to light other significant facts. For one, it is clear that they knew that French President Hollande would be present at Le Stade de France, seated among the spectators watching a football match between the French and German teams. They also knew that the Batlacan Theatre would be packed with 1,500 people attending the concert of an American band.

In other words, the French president was himself a target and IS had the means to get to him, which shows an additional qualitative superiority for the capacities of the terrorist organisation. Also, the Stade de France, the largest target, was packed with tens of thousands of spectators from France, Germany and other nationalities.

If the attackers had succeeded in entering the stadium, the loss of human life would have been enormous. Moreover, the huge stadium was only one of many targets. The same applies to the Batlacan, where the masterminds, who had expertly planned that attack, knew that an American rock group was performing and, thus, delivered a two-fold message.

Clearly, French intelligence calculations were flawed. The first person they identified had a long record of behaviour that merited attention. But the intelligence service ended its surveillance of him about a year ago because he was not connected to an organisation, and he was dismissed as a “lone wolf.”

The same applies to a considerable extent to a Belgian man who came to Paris. This person frequented a mosque known as a gathering place for extremists and gave lessons and sermons in the mosque without attracting attention. In addition to the foregoing, there are numerous other details that should have triggered concern and attention.

Other questions have arisen in connection with the IS attacks elsewhere. Most notably, why didn’t France, which was among the Western countries that declared their conviction that the Russian airplane crash only two weeks ago in North Sinai was caused by a bomb planted on the plane by IS, take this as a warning that the countries involved in the war against IS, such as France, would be potential targets?

This, moreover, was followed by the Beirut attacks, lending weight to the scenario of multiple targets in conjunction with the negotiations in Vienna over the Syrian crisis and the run up to the G-20 summit in Turkey.

We cannot say that there is no coordination among European nations within the framework of the EU system and even abroad. However, it is important to consider the state of that coordination. It seems that any assessment of the question of capacities must look beyond France as many news stories on people who escaped IS’s grip and returned to Europe reveal a weakness in that system.

In addition, the preparations for the Paris attacks were made in Belgium by a small group stationed in Bromby. Located only six kilometres from the EU headquarters in Brussels, this neighbourhood is home to 22 mosques frequented by Islamist extremists. Security measures in Belgium were limited to keeping the neighbourhood under surveillance in response to reports from families that their sons had joined IS.

What is the source of the failure?

“There’s nothing that can be done,” said Alan Shwaya, a French intelligence officer who offered an analysis of the attacks from the standpoint of the state of the intelligence agencies. His words are revealing in terms of the thought processes behind the ways that intelligence agencies respond to events and, simultaneously, in terms of their capacities to respond to violent extremism and potential attacks.

His outlook can be summarised as follows: There may be advanced surveillance technology and systems in Paris to track extremists, but there is also plenty of scope for camouflage and evading detection.

According to a recent report by France’s General Directorate of External Security, France is the largest exporter in Europe of extremists to Syria and Iraq. Around 1,462 French citizens or residents have joined jihadist organisations at some time or another, and more of than half of these are in Syria and Iraq.

Broadening the scope of suspicion, 3,142 individuals are believed to show strong radical or extremist tendencies. When the scope was widened further, between 4,000 and 10,000 people fell under suspicion.

This is a large amount of people for security agencies to keep track of. It is also difficult to monitor the approximately 130 border crossings between France and its European neighbours.

This, in turn, leads to the security agencies’ challenge of analysing the new generation of terrorists. A quarter of IS recruits are minors and adolescents who have no criminal records, as is the case with the three youths, aged 17 to 23, who attempted to attack the military base in Toulouse.

There is also the problem of names, as extremists generally prefer to use nicknames rather than their real names to communicate with one another via social networking sites. Legalities present another difficulty when it comes to handling those individuals and their families under normal conditions, when there is no state of emergency.

The speed of the recruitment process into the vast network of extremists is yet another major problem. Generally, youths are recruited in European mosques, as is the case in Belgium, by imams who are citizens of the countries in question, generally of the third or fourth generation of immigrant families.

The imams who have arrived more recently from Arab countries are regarded as moderate and seen as being unable to communicate with European youths, a phenomenon that is particularly evident in France. The French Salafist sheikhs, by contrast, have the ability to communicate with French youths in a language they understand.

In all events, there is the spectre of the reproduction of jihadist networks — the nightmare of the cleverest intelligence systems. This, in turn, raises the problem of how to confront the threat, even at the country level.

There has certainly been an intersection or convergence of interests between networks in Syria and Iraq, and countries that are now under threat but that had formerly furnished indirect support to certain organisations in the hope of accomplishing certain priorities, such as overthrowing Al-Assad’s regime in Syria.

Otherwise put, there has been a certain revisiting of the creation of Al-Qaeda in order to put an end to the Red Army in Afghanistan, a process that once again reminds us of the rule: “You can summon the devil, but you can’t make him do your bidding, and you can’t make him go back.”

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