Evaluating the Effectiveness of French Counter-Terrorism

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 17

Over the last decade, French counter-terrorism strategy has been recognized as one of the most effective in Europe. The French system emerged from painful experience—unlike other European countries France has faced the deadly threat of Islamic terrorism on its soil since the 1980s. A number of attacks in Paris by the Iranian-linked Hezbollah network of Fouad Ali Saleh in 1985 and 1986 triggered profound changes in the organization and legislative base of French counter-terrorism. These were reinforced after the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) attacks in 1995 and 1996.

The key elements in the French counter-terrorism strategy are the privileged relationship between intelligence services and dedicated magistrates, as well as the qualification of acts of terrorism as autonomous offences punishable by increased penalties. The specific offence designated ‘association’ or ‘conspiring to terrorism,’ makes a pre-emptive judicial approach possible. Meanwhile a sophisticated system named Vigipirate (security alert plan) of nation-wide, pre-planned security measures were developed. After the July 2005 attacks in London, Vigipirate was put in stade rouge (level red) swiftly invoking a large number of extra security measures in public places and public transport throughout France and along its borders.

French authorities understood very early on that Islamist terrorism represented a new, complex threat and developed a system containing decisive advantages. This prevented acts of Islamic terrorism on French territory from December 1996 until October 2004, although various plots were disrupted during this period. These included a plan to bomb the Paris metro in December 2002 and a plot to attack tourist facilities on the French island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean in June 2003. Clearly France remains high on the list of targets for al-Qaeda and associated groups while recent trends challenge the long term effectiveness of the French approach.

Trends and Future Concerns

The explosion near the Indonesian Embassy in Paris on October 8, 2004 was the first act of terrorism in France in eight years. It was claimed by the unknown Front Islamique Français Armé (FIFA) which threatened France and demanded—amongst other things—the liberation of two terrorists convicted for their participation in the 1995 attacks. The explosive device used was rudimentary, consisting of a gas tank in a bag pack, resembling the devices used in the 1995 attacks and showing once again that terror can be brought upon society cheaply. One person believed to be responsible for communicating the claims of responsibility for the attack was arrested soon after the incident. [1]

It is not this incident alone that has alarmed the French intelligence community. In the first six months of 2005, the French Secret Service (DST) made over sixty Islamic-related terrorism arrests, compared to seventy-six in 2004. This reflects the changes among international jihadists where, according to French counter-terrorism experts, new threats come in addition to existing ones, rather than replacing them. Several trends are regarded as especially worrisome by the French intelligence community.

Firstly, there is the growing importance of what is called the filière Irakienne (Iraqi network); the network recruiting for the insurgency in Iraq. Recruitment seems to take place everywhere, as usual in and near mosques but also in prisons and private gatherings. Moreover, the Internet, where professional multimedia techniques are applied for this purpose, is actively used for recruitment. [2]

Secondly, the recruitment networks operate Europe-wide with recruiters traveling back and forth between various European cities. The Paris based Imam Ben Halim Abderraouf, a foreman of the extremist Jamaat al-Tabligh wal-Da’wa (Society for Propagation & Preaching) movement, apparently played a key role in the recruitment of young Dutch Muslims. Four of them recently traveled on fake Algerian passports via Paris and Damascus to the Syrian-Iraq border area to receive jihad training. A DVD containing footage of their training with explosives in the desert surfaced in the notorious Paris 19th arrondissement. It shows the making of suicide bombs hidden in jackets as well as the devastating effects of these bombs on an autobus and on a constructed scenery of a supermarket and a busy street. The DVD is used for recruiting and indoctrinating other young Muslims. [3]

Thirdly, French experts expect to find Iraq veterans back in France in due course to continue the jihad, just as happened after earlier conflicts. This time however, the insurgents avoid long stays in the combat zone, and instead use the conflict to gain sufficient training and motivation to return battle-hardened to Europe. [4] A dozen young Frenchmen are believed to be in Iraq as combatants, several were arrested along the Iraq/Syria border and an unknown number have probably already returned to France.

Fourthly, there is a new category of Islamic extremists, almost all offspring of immigrants, who seem to be younger, more frustrated, and more radicalized than the French jihadists of the 1990s. Over the last year, five young Frenchmen were killed in Iraq, one while executing a suicide attack near Fallujah. Although no plots for suicide attacks in France have been discovered yet, the DST fears that cells are planning such a strike and is working hard to discover and foil them. Fears of suicide attacks by young French Muslims were reinforced after the events in London. [5]

Finally, another dangerous trend is the apparent change in focus of the Algerian-based Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), an offshoot of the GIA, beyond the borders of Algeria. Intelligence shows that the purported leader of the GSPC, the explosives specialist Abdelmalek Droukdal, has active contacts with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and is planning to combine efforts in the international jihad arena, focusing in particular on France. Since the GSPC is regarded as the most organized extremist organization in Algeria, with its tentacles already reaching far into Spain and presumably into France as well, French security experts take this development seriously. [6]

Developments in Counter-Terrorism

French law enforcement is highly hierarchical in nature, resulting in several agencies and departments within the same agency involved in counter-terrorism. In the National Police these are the aforementioned DST, the General Intelligence Service (RG) and the National Anti-terrorism Division (DNAT). Also the External Intelligence Service (DGSE) of the Defense Ministry has a role in countering terrorism and in addition both the Gendarmerie and the Judicial Police in Paris maintain counter-terrorist judicial and intelligence capabilities.

Frequently these bodies act as little kingdoms, invoking inevitable problems of coordination. Therefore several coordinating structures were created of which the Anti-terrorist Operational Coordination Unit (UCLAT) is the most important. However, without having direct access to the information of the participating bodies and largely dependant on face-to-face meetings, UCLAT’s coordinating role remains suboptimal.

A new—and against the French background, almost revolutionary—initiative aimed at streamlining this organizational jungle and boosting efficiency, is the sharing of one location and resources by the DST, RG and DNAT in 2006. Although ideas for sharing resources and even a fusion between them from time to time emerged since the 1995 GIA attacks, new threats are prompting a greater convergence of resources and capabilities.

Another initiative is last year’s creation of a joint French-Spanish anti-terrorism investigation team in which officers will have equal operative powers on each other’s territory. This is remarkable in contemporary European police cooperation. Another initiative of unprecedented caliber is the reinforced French-US counter-terrorism cooperation under the name ‘Alliance Base’ that has been in place since 2002, though only became public last July.

Although the London attacks predictably prompted several new repressive initiatives, like proposals to upgrade the 1995 legislation on video surveillance, tougher penalties for terrorism-related crimes and data retention on all communication, the French have already been searching for original alternatives to supplement conventional counter-terrorism strategies.

A first initiative in this regard was the decision in 2004 to elevate the fight against terrorism to the status of a Chantier national (Major Project); meaning a prioritized cause requiring nation wide efforts. [7] Amongst other things, this entailed an appeal on all government institutions to actively search for indications and information pointing to processes of radicalism in society. A following initiative is the recent announcement of the compilation of a white book on “the internal security and the threat of terrorism.” [8]

The white book should receive input from various government departments and provide answers to strategic, operational and pedagogical questions involving:

• evaluating the actual threat level;

• mapping the types of threats and targets relevant for France;

• exploring new technological counter-terrorism possibilities;

• finding an equilibrium between liberties and security;

• enhancing the international counter-terrorism cooperation;

• informing society adequately without creating unnecessary fear.

When completed, the white book should serve as a basis for public action against the threat of terrorism in the coming decennia. [9]

The broad appeal on various government institutions and society in both the ‘Chantier national’ and the White book are relatively new approaches in this field in Europe. These are necessary and important attempts to take countering terrorism out of the exclusive domain of law enforcement. After all, the recent attacks in London clearly indicate that Islamist terrorism will continue to threaten western European societies for the foreseeable future. As far as the French are concerned, even a very efficient law enforcement and intelligence community will only be part of the answer. To enhance its counter-terrorism approach, France has taken initial steps that ensure a wider participation of society to counter this growing menace.

1. ‘Attentat contre l’ambassade d’Indonésie à Paris : un homme en garde à vue’, Le Monde, October 12, 2004.

2. Bunt, G. ‘Cyber-terrorism: Using Internet as a recruitment tool’, paper delivered at the IRIS conference ‘L’Europe face au Terrorisme’, Paris, March 8, 2005.

3. ‘De Spin in het zelfmoord-net’, Dutch Daily De Telegraaf, July 2, 2005.

4. ‘Alerte sur les nouvelles filières islamistes’, Le Figaro, May 25, 2005.

5. ‘Le djihadiste français est plus fruste, plus jeune, plus radicalisé’, Le Monde, May 24, 2005.

6. ‘Le GSPC algérien menacerait la France dans le cadre du ‘djihad’ international’, Le Monde, June 26, 2005.

7. Speech by the Minister, D. de Villepin, at the June 24, 2004 French Ministry of Interior press-conference.

8. ‘Préparation d’un Livre blanc sur la sécurité intérieure face au terrorisme’, statement at www.premier-ministre.gouv.fr , issued May 3, 2005.

9. ‘La lutte contre le terrorisme va faire l’objet d’un Livre blanc’, Le Monde May 5, 2005.