There was no “Intelligence Failure” in Paris

The smoke has barely cleared from the fifty-four hours of terror around Paris that captured the horrified attention of the world. The seventeen victims are journalists, police officers, average people shopping at a Jewish grocery. One terrorist remains at large at this hour, while three are dead, including the Kouachi brothers who were the centerpiece of this murderous mayhem.

That these self-styled mujahidin, native born French citizens all, went out in a blaze of glory was easily predictable — indeed I did predict it on the day this story broke, when I also pointed out that murdering “those who insult the Prophet” isn’t exactly news in Europe, while jihadists returning home from foreign wars to cause war in France in the name of Islam … well, that’s been going on for nearly twenty years, when the heavily armed Roubaix Gang went down shooting just as this new cadre of killers has just done.

That something like what has just happened was inevitable in France also did not require clairvoyance, and back in June, after Mehdi Nemmouche murdered three innocents in Brussels, I told you that more domestic terrorism was coming. Despite the fact that Nemmouche was a known radical who had spent over a year in Syria, waging jihad, and French intelligence had a thick file on him, Paris, which is simply overwhelmed by the number of potential terrorists now, lost track of the killer. As I stated a few months ago:

If French intelligence and police can lose track of a high-interest possible terrorist even when allies are helping, one has to wonder how much more terrorism is coming. It’s clear that Paris is simply overwhelmed by the sheer number of its citizens going to Syria and returning home even more radical. In response to the failure of France’s counterterrorism efforts yet again, emulating the Merah case, Bernard Squarcini, the former DCRI director, demanded “ambitious reforms” of the intelligence system to meet this rising threat, adding that “the umpteenth intelligence reform led by [Interior Minister] Manuel Valls has clearly changed nothing, since there are still some glaring shortcomings in the detection of jihadis.” There is not much time left to repair the system. Three dead in Brussels ought to be enough. If major changes are not implemented soon, more innocent people will die.

The above-mentioned Valls, now France’s prime minister, surveying the latest outburst of savagery in Paris, has told the public of “a clear failing” with “cracks” in the security apparatus. This, however, is one of those phrases tossed off by worried politicians seeking to shift blame, and is essentially meaningless.

Many are now asking how France, which is no slouch in the intelligence game, possessing competent security services and police, could have “missed” this monstrosity. The answer to that question will be unedifying to the public, which has been conditioned to expect magical performance from spies and cops, who are mere mortals overburdened by potential threats. What happened in the Nemmouche case should illustrate how imperfect French intelligence is on counterterrorism, despite its solid HUMINT, SIGINT, and collaboration with partners:

On his return, the DGSE [General Directorate of External Security, i.e. French foreign intelligence] which is supposed to track our French jihadis in Syria, apparently missed him. It was German customs that detected him in March 2013, intrigued by his meandering route home, via Malaysia, Bangkok, and Istanbul. Germany reported his crossing to Paris, and there, officially, the DCRI [Central Directorate of Domestic Intelligence, i.e. French domestic intelligence], listed him as someone that should be kept under surveillance. In other words a suspect recorded on a so-called “S” file. From March to May 30, the day of his chance arrest, so for over two months, Nemmouche completely disappeared off the radar.  Meanwhile he is suspected of having perpetrated the shooting in Brussels on May 24.

The case of Mohammed Merah, the killer of seven innocents, four of them Jewish children, in the south of France in March 2012 — before he, too, went down amid shouts of jihad — provided an unheeded warning of sorts, since it turned out that French intelligence had been a good deal more informed about the twenty-three year-old jihadist than they let on at first. His travels to Afghanistan and Pakistan got Merah branded a “special target” by the secret services, but they lost track of him too.

By the fall of 2013, French intelligence was warning the public that the staggering and unprecedented numbers of French nationals traveling to Syria and Iraq to wage jihad, most of whom were likely to return home angrier and more lethal, represented a serious threat that the secret services were hard-pressed to counter, thanks to inadequate resources.

By the late summer of 2014, it was apparent that French intelligence was simply overwhelmed by the numbers of potential terrorist targets — furious young men (and women) eager to wage jihad at home. As a seasoned counterterrorism magistrate complained, French intelligence and police were finding themselves “disarmed” in the face of this new threat, while the lack of legal “teeth” meant that there was not much that the secret services could actually do about the many potential terrorists in the country. Likely trouble-makers could be arrested upon returning from jihad abroad, but they could not be kept in custody for long, and many were being released angrier than they were before, creating an explosive situation.

That, exactly, is the rub. France’s intelligence apparatus is good at what they do. The Kouachi brothers were on relevant watch-lists, their files with the secret services were surely thick and well annotated, and I have no doubt that many Western intelligence services, at some point, had tracked their goings and doings to some extent — and it’s likely much of that information was shared with foreign partners, as it’s supposed to be.

In terms of profile, these jihadist murderers fit it perfectly, to an almost comical extent: angry young losers, drug users with criminal records, coming from broken families, known unpleasantly in their community as violent troublemakers. There was even the obligatory aspiring rap artist cliche. These are essentially spree killers seeking an ideology to justify their murderous urges, and in Salafi jihadism they found it: that being the hate-based worldview of choice for many would-be terrorists these days, anywhere. When travel to foreign jihad was added to the Kouachi dossier, the French intelligence services had something to work with, but not enough to keep them off the streets for long. It was inevitable that the security apparatus — which can only track so many targets in “real time” or something close to it, and resources are always finite — placed other, more dangerous-looking jihadists higher on the list to be watched than the Paris killers.

That was a mistake, albeit one that every security service makes all the time; only on rare occasion are the consequences of such routine bad calls public and horrific. As a former spook myself, I am sympathetic to those who have to make tough calls based on invariably imperfect information. Two key points must be made. First, movies and the Snowden Operation, both of which are based in lies and fantasy, have created the impression that Western intelligence enacts 24/7 or “total” surveillance with ease. This is simply not true. Even with excellent SIGINT, as France possesses, all the information in the world — which, let it be remembered, must be analyzed by someone, looking for nuggets amid countless hours of mundane conversation by low-IQ jihadists about TV, rap artists, and problems with parents and girlfriends — only matters when action can be taken.

I suspect that the Paris outrage will turn out a lot like the 9/11 debacle in the United States, said to be an “intelligence failure” when it was really nothing of the sort. Oh, there were missed pieces of the puzzle, to be sure, dots not connected as the 9/11 Commission investigators so liked to put it, but the painful reality is that, in the run-up to what al-Qa’ida called its Planes Operation, U.S. intelligence worked pretty much as it was supposed to under the legal norms established in the 1970’s. There was only as much information sharing as the law allowed, and besides what would the FBI actually have done anyway?

I am confident that what French intelligence knew about the Kouachi brothers and their friends in the months and years before they took Paris by storm will shock the innocent and uninformed, as it will paint them correctly as violent cretins with murder on their warped minds. But that contingent is not as small in France as the public would like to think and French security simply didn’t know what to do with them. To be absolutely clear: What now looks like the obvious choice — arrest them and keep them off the streets — was never a realistic option.

To provide a relevant example, a few years ago I was discussing these sorts of things with intelligence officials from a friendly Muslim country, which like all of them possesses an extremism problem. Their solution is a deradicalization program to divert would-be troublemakers back to some sort of normal life before they kill. I am skeptical of all such deradicalization programs, since most sound too good to be true, but I listened carefully to the details of this rather well-thought out initiative.

In the first place, these spooks don’t have to worry much about civil liberties, so they track online activities carefully, and they have all potentially worrisome mosques wired too. Hence they find young men, usually maladjusted late teenagers, talking like potential jihadists and they arrest them. They are packed off to a tennis prison, a pleasant place without high walls, where for several months they get counseling from imams who gently explain that Islam is not about decapitating “apostates,” that real Muslims should improve spiritually, and they need to be law-abiding citizens. The young men receive vocational training and career counseling, plus help with job placement, with the aim of returning them soon to a normal life.

After a few months of this program, most of the inmates are released; nearly ninety percent after six months of deradicalization are assessed as fit to rejoin society. The spies track them, and at a year after release, nearly ninety percent of the “graduates” are considered to be no sort of threat. These are very impressive numbers, so, being my skeptical self, I asked the obvious question: “What about the ones who don’t deradicalize?”

Without batting an eye, the senior intelligence official responded, “Oh, we just keep them.”

There it is: would-be jihadists considered a threat to the public are kept in custody until they “get better” or forever, whichever comes first. This is a wise response, in my view, but let’s be honest here, it’s also nothing any Western law-based democracy is going to enact in 2015.

Western intelligence services since 9/11 have become very proficient at counterterrorism, with impressive collaboration in all disciplines, and France’s services rank among the best anywhere. If there was an “intelligence failure” here, and we can be sure that embarrassed Paris politicos will be looking for one, it was small-scale. The real problem is that French politicians, as in all Western countries, have absolutely no idea what to do with the burgeoning numbers of aspiring jihadist killers in their midst.

That is a political, not security, issue, that no amount of funds or personnel devoted to intelligence work can ameliorate. Besides, I sense no desire for France to become an East German-like counterintelligence state where one-third of the population is secretly reporting on the other two-thirds, including friends and family, to the secret police. Hence a political solution is required to Europe’s mounting crisis with homegrown Islamism, since there is no security solution at hand, and that knotty issue will be the subject of my next commentary.

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