Fumbles, Mistakes Prompt Talk of Major French Intelligence Failure
by Jamie Dettmer November 17, 2015
In the wake of the Paris attacks, wary and overstretched European intelligence services are asking themselves what more they can do to prevent the kind of terrorism that struck the French capital.
The information emerging about the planning of the attacks and those involved is raising the question of why France's security services missed the plot, why they overlooked militants they had already identified, and why, along with their counterparts in neighboring Belgium, they failed to interdict some of the militants on their return from Syria.
The intelligence services admit that out of a terror network they believe included 24 people, five were returning fighters from Syria.
In Belgium, a parliamentary committee overseeing the country's security services has launched an inquiry into intelligence failings leading up to the Paris terror rampage.
The Islamic State attackers used Belgium as as their forward staging area, presumably because the intelligence services there are even shorter of resources than those in France.
"It appears the terrorists managed to evade the intelligence radar and the police. The question now is to know what more we can do," said Stefaan Van Hecke, a lawmaker with Belgium's Green party.
French politicians also are voicing increasing frustration at what some are dubbing France's Pearl Harbor, likening Friday's simultaneous attacks to the sneak 1941 Japanese bombing of the U.S. naval base at Hawaii, which was also preceded by intelligence failures.
Others see Friday's attacks as France's 9/11 – both in psychological and intelligence terms.
Official inquiries after the attacks in Washington and New York 14 years ago also concluded that overwhelmed security and law enforcement agencies failed to pick up a gathering conspiracy.
'Nobody stopped them'
"What we know is that most of these people came back from Syria and nobody stopped them," said Nathalie Goulet, a member of the French Senate foreign and defense committee.
For several months Goulet, a centrist lawmaker who chaired a commission of inquiry into jihadist networks, has voiced anger at the continued presence in France of foreign fundamentalist Sunni preachers who she says act as recruiters.
She has regularly warned of the rising risks of a catastrophic attack.
Goulet, however, said she is shocked by the scale of Friday's shootings and bombings and the high level of sophistication behind them.
She acknowledges the French security services have a huge challenge when it comes to resources and what the laws permit in a liberal democracy, noting that in Normandy alone, more than 300 potentially highly dangerous jihadists have been identified.
"They are reported, tracked, but you cannot put a policeman behind each of them," she says. "Especially since being reported to be in the process of radicalization does not make you a criminal."
Goulet is, however, critical of the temporary nature of the surveillance and how quickly suspected militants can be dropped from the lists of militants.
She argues the French security services should maintain "a permanent file of people who had a link with terrorist organizations" much as the police do when it comes to sex offenders who are stuck permanently on file.
"It works well and it is dissuasive. It should be on the same model," she says.
Several attackers were known
Several of last Friday's attackers were known to French intelligence, with dossiers identifying them as security risks.
The man French intelligence has named as the mastermind, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, had already been identified as an accomplice of two jihadists who were killed in a shootout at a jihadist safe house in the eastern Belgian town of Verviers in January.
A Belgian of Moroccan origin, Abaaoud has been on the run ever since, also spending time fighting in Syria.
In a February issue of the online Islamic State magazine Dabiq, Abaaoud, who uses also the nom de guerre Abu Umar al-Baljiki, boasted about how he could operate in plain sight in Belgium and never get caught.
After the shootout in Verviers, the authorities "figured out that I had been with the brothers and that we had been planning operations together," he noted in the Dabiq interview. "My name and picture were all over the news, yet I was able to stay in their homeland, plan operations against them, and leave safely when doing so became necessary."
He recounted how on one occasion he had been stopped by police, but they failed to recognize him and let him go.
One of the attackers last Friday at the Stade de France, Ismael Omar Mostefai, was suspected of having become a radical in 2010. He went to Syria in 2013 and returned to France in early 2014.
While Turkish authorities said they warned Paris about Mostefai in December 2014 and this past June, no action was taken.
Information sought after attack
"We did not, however, hear back from France on the matter. It was only after the Paris attacks that the Turkish authorities received a request for information' on Mostefai, a Turkish official told Al Jazeera.
Samy Amimour, another of the gunmen, was detained in October 2012 on suspicion of terrorist links but jumped parole, traveled to Syria, and returned unobserved to France in mid-October of last year.
Turkey is not the only country that said it sent warnings to France about a possible big attack being planned.
Senior Iraqi officials told The Associated Press they had also warned of an imminent attack. However, French officials insist these warnings lacked detail.
French and Belgian intelligence officials say the plotters were especially careful in how they communicated electronically to avoid eavesdropping, using Sony PlayStation 4 among other devices to exchange messages.
Failed to connect the dots
Even so, Belgium Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said European intelligence agencies collectively missed connecting the dots, adding that they must start sharing and exchanging information on known suspects more efficiently.
"Whether it's the control of our external borders or the exchange of information, including sensitive information, between countries, more and more of it must be done in Europe," Reynders told the French news agency AFP.
In a rare speech Monday to both houses of the French parliament, President Francois Hollande focused on border controls, saying he will ask his European Union counterparts Friday for a suspension of the Schengen agreement – the EU treaty that abolished border checks among most European countries.
Hollande also announced an increase in personnel for the security services, adding 8,500.
Analysts said that will help in the long-term but not produce results for another four years or so, while recruitment and training take place.
Intelligence gathering closer to Syria is also of major importance, say anti-IS activists from Raqqa, Syria, the de facto capital of the terror group.
For months now, activists, who run their own informal intelligence networks, have spoken about how difficult it is to pass information to Western intelligence services.
Difficult to share information
Ahmad Abdulkader, who runs the activist network Eye on the Homeland, told VOA in May that Western intelligence services, including those of French and the United States, have done little to exploit valuable intelligence from more than 100 IS defectors, who activists helped flee Raqqa.
Abdulkader told VOA that among the defectors were two IS security operatives and the bodyguard of a significant player in the terror group.
The activists have debriefed them, securing what their leader describes as "very important information."
Yet Abdulkader said his group has not been contacted by intelligence officials from the United States or other Western powers in the anti-IS coalition.
'I could make another 100 leave ISIS, but if I do so, who would be responsible for them, house and feed them?" he said, referring to an acronym for the extremist group. "There is nowhere for them to go."
What was among the pieces of information received from defectors? The training of foreign IS recruits for attacks on their homelands, he said.
"No one has talked with me about the defectors; no one debriefs them," Abdulkader said.
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