The French Intelligence Failure: Nobody’s Perfect, But Were 17 Murders Unavoidable?

[The following is adapted from an article written for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.]

Like insurance companies, intelligence agencies cannot guarantee full, fail-safe coverage.

The French security service can’t have information about every terrorist cell, certainly not about individuals or couples who conspire to carry out acts of terrorism. As a reminder, even the highly reputed and effective Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) didn’t know about the plan of a Hamas cell in Hebron to abduct Israelis last June, a terrorist incident that resulted in the murder of the three Israeli yeshiva students — then retaliation against an innocent Palestinian youth, and then a 50-day war between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers.

In the case of the kidnap which triggered a global crisis, it took the Shin Bet a few weeks until it tracked down the murderers and their helpers.

“Intelligence is not going to predict when a fanatic goes from being a radical thinker to a violent terrorist in most cases,” Bruce Riedel, a former top CIA analyst, told Reuters. He said French security agents cannot monitor all potential suspects “24 hours a day.”

These are wise words of truth. Yet it seems that this time the French services failed. Said and Cherif Kouachi, the brothers who murdered 12 people in last week’s attack against the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in Paris, were known to the French security service and under surveillance.

Their names were on the list of TIDE, the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment. TIDE is the U.S. government’s central database on known or suspected international terrorists. It contains more than one million names. The CIA shares the list with its counterparts – including, of course, French intelligence.

Furthermore, the brothers were on another watch list of those banned from boarding flights.

One of the brothers flew in 2011 to Yemen and was trained by AQAP — Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the branch led by Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed that year by a U.S. drone strike.

The other brother was a recruiter trying to dispatch French volunteers to join the jihad in Iraq against U.S. forces.

It is interesting to note that while foreign experts such as Riedel are suggesting excuses in defense of the French security agencies — specifically the domestic service DGSI (DirectionGénérale de la Sécurité Intérieure) — French experts are much more critical. The French analysts are less hesitant to define as failure what happened last week when three jihadi terrorists with Kalashnikov assault rifles put a major European capital under siege.

JeSuisCharlie“Our problem,” I was told by a senior French security and intelligence expert, “is in the structural reform of our security services.”

The expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity, explained that in 2008, the domestic security service DST merged with the intelligence units of regional police departments, known as RG. The merger created a new body known as DCRI, later in 2014 to be renamed DGSI.

Until the merger, DST was focused on the “big issues” of counterintelligence and catching foreign spies, and on “great” terrorism, big groups such as al-Qaeda.  RG, on the other hand, was doing the leg work of sending undercover agents to mosques, listening to imams and mapping the terrain of radical Islamists in the neighborhoods.

But according to the French expert, “what happened after the merger is that the mentality of the DST – which considered itself a noble, aristocratic counterintelligence service – its state of mind has contaminated the entire DGSI and after the merger fewer resources were devoted to the methodical and patient intelligence collection that RG was doing before.”

In other words there is a dangerous irony: that as the radical Islamist threat has grown, its intelligence coverage has been weakened by structural malfunction.

Nevertheless, the French problem is not merely the structure and deficiencies of its security agencies. It is much broader and much deeper.

France, like the rest of western Europe, has to change its attitude and state of mind. It has to realize that it is in a state of war against those who challenge its culture, heritage and history.

To face the new challenge, France and Europe have to toughen their anti-terrorist laws and change their immigration policies. France must be ready to reevaluate the delicate balance between security and democracy, and between democratic values versus the need to defend the republic.

As happened in the U.S. after 9/11, defending security inevitably comes at the expense of some liberties.

January 12, 2015

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