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French Intelligence to Blame?

All terrorist outrages are inevitably followed by soul-searching and blame-seeking. Last week’s terrible events in France have followed the inevitable trajectory. While the French Republic’s security manhunt for the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo and Jewish supermarket killings involved an impressive and vast mobilization of forces, and while French society’s response to the attacks was awe-inspiring in its public show of support for free speech and unity, questions have begun to emerge about the performance of French intelligence in failing to prevent the attacks

While resource issues may be real, and certainly need close attention and upgrading as necessary, more resources alone will never win the counter-terrorism fight.

The French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, has already stated that there was a “clear failing…when 17 people die, it means there were cracks.” But cracks (or gaps) in a security system don’t necessarily mean failure—and therein lies the troubling dilemma for French intelligence and the government. Understanding what went wrong is key to understanding what can be done better to prevent such terrorist attacks. This is not just a problem for France. All countries affected by terrorism threats, including Canada, have a stake in understanding how the French system missed the threat posed by the Kouachi brothers, who conducted the massacre at the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and by Amedy Coulibay, who seized hostages in the Jewish supermarket in eastern Paris, killing four before being shot by French special forces.

The three terrorists were all well known to the French authorities, and both Cherif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly had been arrested in connection with previous terrorism offences. Cherif was convicted in 2008 and spent three years in prison, where he may well have been further radicalized. All three claimed allegiance to overseas terror networks: in the case of the Kouachi brothers to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (one of the surviving Al Qaeda affiliates, based in Yemen), and in the case of Coulibaly to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).

Learning more about those ties, including whether the terror attacks were in any way directed or orchestrated from outside France, is one of the top priorities for investigation. What is known is that Said Kouachi, the older brother and apparent ringleader of the Charlie Hebdo attack, had spent time in Yemen with AQAP as recently as 2012, including time in terror training camps. Anonymous French and U.S. intelligence sources have suggested that all three attackers were once subject to high-priority surveillance but that such surveillance had been relaxed or dropped altogether more recently. The Kouachi brothers were on U.S. and UK no-fly lists.

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The failure to detect the preparations of the Kouachis and Coulibaly appears to have been rooted in the high operational demands facing French intelligence agencies and the apparent recent ‘quiet’ of all three terrorists. France is faced with a large number of French nationals (estimated at over 1000) who have travelled to Iraq and Syria to join jihadist organizations fighting in the region. As in many Western democracies, the foreign fighter problem has been elevated to the top of the priority list and has attracted the most intelligence resources in an effort to combat it.

French officials have already been quoted as saying they just don’t have the resources to follow all the foreign fighter and domestic security threats they know about. While resource issues may be real, and certainly need close attention and upgrading as necessary, more resources alone will never win the counter-terrorism fight.

The fact that the Kouachis and Coulibaly may have taken steps to adopt a low profile and stay out of the sights of French surveillance points to another problem facing counter-terrorism agencies—that of perseverance. At a high operational tempo, intelligence agencies are forced to change target sets frequently. The challenge lies in being able to maintain levels of lawful scrutiny of suspects who may be further down the priority list but who may reactivate themselves. These people are not exactly the ‘sleeper agents’ of popular imagination, but they may have their own deceptive reasons for appearing to be ‘asleep.’ They cannot be allowed to fall out of the memory or the watchfulness of security agencies.

Part of the solution is technological. While physical surveillance of suspects is extremely resource intensive, technological surveillance is not. But it requires the tools, talent, and appropriate legal regime. This question of monitoring terrorist communications, both within France and beyond, will be one of the critical issues that will come to the fore in France as the Republic debates its intelligence failure. And the question of such capabilities clearly resonates well beyond France—including in Canada, where new anti-terrorism legislation is in the offing.

French intelligence also suffers some other problems that need addressing in the light of last week’s attacks. The ability of France’s two main intelligence services—the Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure (DGSE) and the Direction Centrale du Renseignement Interieur (DCRI) to properly work together will be an issue. So too will the outlook of both services on intelligence sharing with foreign partners.


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Perhaps most surprising might be a new demand for better forms of parliamentary and public scrutiny of the work of French intelligence. While the French Parliament passed a law in 2007 creating an intelligence committee (the ‘Delegation Parliamentaire au Renseignement) to follow “the general activity and means of the specialized services,” French parliamentary scrutiny remains relatively weak and undeveloped. The post-war doctrine, which for historical reasons placed French intelligence firmly under the control of the executive with a particular emphasis on state secrecy, needs to adapt to changing circumstances.

There are lessons to be learned, for France and for other countries, in the failures of counter-terrorism on display in Paris last week. Those lessons point in four directions: perseverance in maintaining a strategic watch on presumed lower tier threats; better technological capabilities; better intelligence sharing at home and abroad; and better external scrutiny.

A shorter version of this essay was published in the Ottawa Citizen on January 13, 2015.

 

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