Viewpoint: Paris attacks expose intelligence gaps

French soldiers patrol in front of the Eiffel Tower on 8 January 2015 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Security in France is tight in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack

The Islamist attacks in Paris show that France may need to rethink its intelligence operations, says Camille Grand, defence expert and director of the Foundation of Strategic Research in Paris.

France has one of the largest Muslim communities in Europe, and the overwhelming majority live peacefully in the country with which they share values and ways of living.

A significant minority observe a more rigorous interpretation of Islam. But even among these more conservative Muslims, only a fraction belong to the violent fringe of Islam.

Only a few French Muslims live in parallel communities with different values - as some communities in other European countries do.

From that perspective the rather tough French laws enforcing secularism - for example the ban on the burqa in public places, or on headscarves in public schools - help prevent the isolation of most Muslims communities.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Attempts to ban the headscarf in public schools have caused controversy

There is, however, a real phenomenon of some Muslims in France becoming radicalised - whether they are French citizens or not.

Some radical preachers in a few official or unofficial mosques might play a role. But the process now seems to take place increasingly on the internet.

There is also a significant issue associated with radicalisation in prison, where young criminals sometimes join Islamist groups.

Events in the Middle East can play a role in the early stages of radicalisation, which transform lost individuals into radical militants, although it remains difficult to identify a single profile.


France has dealt with Islamist radical groups for two decades, since the Algerian conflict spilled over in Paris with bombings in 1995-96. The country therefore has a long experience of managing the surveillance of Islamists.

The counter-terrorism legal system is robust and allows investigations and court cases at early stages. The foreign and domestic intelligence services have put a clear priority on threats from Islamist fighters for several years.

It is assumed that several significant terror attacks have been averted in recent years.

As this week's attacks have unfortunately demonstrated, though, there are some gaps in this monitoring system.

These gaps would seem unavoidable when intelligence services are trying to monitor a fairly large group of individuals without turning France into a police state.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Cherif (L) Kouachi, who was well known to police, and his brother Said are suspected of killing 12 people in an attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo

In this context, the fact that some of the terrorists that recently carried out attacks in France had a background as fighters overseas, or had at least spent time in Syria or Yemen, is a major issue of concern.

French militants have provided one of the largest contingents of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, and the country now faces a major security challenge as hundreds of them return home.

It would be extremely difficult and costly to put all of them under surveillance around the clock.

Successful efforts to prevent people leaving also create new problems, with would-be jihadists remaining on French soil.

This week's attacks still need to be analysed in detail as far as the precise background and network of the terrorists are concerned - but it is clear that France, like other European democracies, faces a long-term security challenge.

To address it, countries need to integrate the vast majority of peaceful Muslims - a tall order in an era of economic and social tensions.

It also needs a resolute fight against the violent minority, which might require a further strengthening of France's counter-terror legal arsenal and intelligence capabilities.

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