The terror crisis still unfolding in Paris on Saturday was the one security officials were prepared for. The suspects were known to be suspicious. The primary target was known to be a primary target.
Police had assigned extra protection to the offices of the weekly satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which in the past had often enraged terror organizations with its cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. French police had followed, photographed and listened in on the suspects, and at least some of their terror contacts were known well. The men reportedly were on the U.S. no-fly list.
And yet on Wednesday, they broke into the offices of Charlie Hebdo and killed 10, including five well known cartoonists, as well as two police officers there to protect them.
So the question being asked today in Paris, around Europe and around the rest of the world, is how did it happen? If the known suspects can hit the known and protected targets, how can the unknown targets be protected from the unknown future attackers?
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The simple answer, anti-terror experts agree, is they can’t be. The world is not a safe place, and the reality of surveillance falls far short of the image portrayed by Hollywood.
Mark Singleton, director of the International Center for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague, said that in the end, it comes down to numbers. France today is faced with an estimated 600 to 1,000 so-called “jihadi tourists,” French citizens who have traveled to Syria or Iraq to fight with the Islamic State or other terror organizations for a short while, before returning to their homes and lives here.
In addition, there are homegrown and self-radicalized threats, and each year an estimated 40 terrorists are released from French prisons and could require monitoring.
“For every individual who should be monitored, approximately 20 staff are needed,” he wrote in an email response to questions.
A Belgian military intelligence official, who cannot use his real name because he operates undercover, described the problem his country faces.
“It takes at least eight operatives to follow one person without them noticing,” he said. “And you need three shifts to cover the entire day. Then you need people, often with language skills monitoring their phones and Internet, around the clock.”
“We have about 400 citizens or residents known to be fighting alongside ISIS in Syria or Iraq,” he said. “Then we have about 100 people here in Belgium either indicted or under investigation or some form of monitoring as part of a criminal case. . . . The manpower simply doesn’t exist.”
The ease with which Europeans can travel to Syria was underscored Saturday in the search for the fourth suspect in last week’s Paris events, Hatay Boumeddiene, the 26-year-old woman who’s been described variously as the girlfriend or wife of Amedy Coulibaly, who is suspected of being part of the terror cell that launched the Charlie Hebdo attack. Coulibaly is suspected of killing a policewoman on Thursday and bragged to a French television interview that he had killed four hostages in a kosher grocery on Friday before he was killed himself when police stormed the store.
Boumeddiene was named as a suspect in the killing of the policewoman and was rumored to have been present at the grocery store. But on Saturday, as hundreds of thousands of French marched in the streets to protest the violence, news surfaced that Boumeddiene may have traveled to Turkey a week ago and crossed into Syria on Thursday.
The Paris newspaper Le Monde, citing “a well placed source” it did not otherwise identify, said that a woman carrying Boumeddiene’s passport had boarded a Madrid to Istanbul flight Jan. 2 and that Turkish intelligence reported that she crossed the Turkish-Syrian border on Thursday. A return ticket for a flight Friday to Madrid was not used.
If Boumeddiene did in fact travel to Syria as the violence unfolded in Paris last week, she would have been in good company.
An estimated 3,000 or more Europeans are known to have made the journey, and the primary concern of European anti-terror officials at this point is in determining how great a threat these people represent when they return.
Terror experts worry that when these people return, they are not only a potential threat in their home nation, but throughout the European Union, which exists largely without border controls.
French officials note that in recent months, they have foiled several attempted attacks, three in December alone. Last year, an attack that killed three at the Jewish Museum in Brussels was laid to a French extremist, Mehdi Nemouche, who’d spent much of the previous year fighting in Syria. He was arrested in the French city of Marseille a week after the attack in Belgium.
“How many Europeans who can travel to Belgium without a visa or even showing ID have jihadist associations?” asked the Belgian military intelligence official. “Hundreds? Thousands?”
More resources for counter terror efforts alone have not proven to be the solution, Singleton said, as the attack on Charlie Hebdo showed.
“Mass surveillance is highly controversial,” Singleton said. “It’s never foolproof, as past events show, and comes at a huge cost . . . The knee-jerk reaction to call for more resources for security services and extend their powers . . . is typical, but won’t solve the problems in France or elsewhere.”
Singleton argues that a more fruitful course is “striking the right balance between repression and prevention, addressing root causes of radicalization – at home and abroad.”
In this case, one of the suspects had been followed for about a decade.
The brothers who are the principal suspects, Said and Cherif Kouachi, native Parisians, were both on terror lists. Said Kouachi, 34, while outwardly quiet and reportedly polite in his community, was well known to U.S. security officials. They’ve said they knew he’d spent some time in Yemen with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and he was the American no-fly list because of his terror potential.
His younger brother Cherif, 32, was better known to French security officials. He’d been arrested for terror-related activity on three occasions. Security officials had taped his phone conversations and photographed his meetings with other known terror suspects.
According to Le Monde, Cherif’s contacts were almost a who’s who of the French terror community, including the self-taught firebrand preacher known for radicalizing young Muslim men, Farid Benyettou, who in 2005 was profiled by the French newspaper Liberation under the headline “A ticket to jihad”.
Cherif served prison terms in 2005 and 2008 for consorting with terrorists and recruiting people to head to Iraq and fight “the American invaders.” While jailed, he apparently met Djamal Beghal, one of the men behind a 2001 plan to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Paris, and became involved in a plot to free a man jailed for a 1995 attack at the Musée d’Orsay subway station.
Even so, Cherif did not appear to be a central figure of Islamist circles himself. He was known to smoke and drink and do drugs. Le Monde, printing photos of the two men meeting in 2010, noted that Beghal later said about Cherif “I don’t trust him.”
Security experts note that the fact that such tapes and photos exist is a sign that Cherif was well known and followed. Still, Cherif Kouachi, in a television interview broadcast moments before he died in a hail of police gunfire Friday, said he’d been able to travel to Yemen and meet with Anwar al Awlaki, the American-born cleric who was al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula’s extermanl operations chief before he was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2011
“I know the secret service, don’t worry about it,” he told an interviewer from France’s BMFTV. “ I know very well how I was able to do things well.”
Security experts and officials note that the quieter brother could well be the more deeply committed.
Laurence Nardon, a security expert at the Paris think-tank Institut Francais des Relations Internationales, said that the central lesson of Paris is that no matter what degree of surveillance, society is never safe from madmen.
The police, however, she said, are doing their job well in France.
“I don’t think we should be too harsh in our judgments,” she said.
At any time, French officials keep a round the clock watch tabs on their top 20 terror suspects. The French have more than a thousand who could require surveillance.
“It isn’t possible to follow every possible threat,” she said, noting that she’d lived through terror threats in Paris in decades past and in Washington D.C. in September 2001. “That is the nature of secretive terror organizations. Security forces are bound to be unlucky at some times and, tragically, miss something.”
McClatchy special correspondent Mitchell Prothero contributed from Irbil, Iraq.