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France is once again in a period of mourning. Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel’s truck rampage on July 14 was the fifth Islamist terrorist attack in France that has led to a loss of life since January 2015. Nearly 150 people were killed in Islamist terror attacks in France last year; after this week’s barbarism in Nice, we are over half way to hitting that number again.
It is sobering to realize that 2016’s death count could have been much higher. Consider the case of Ayoub el-Khazzani, who unsuccessfully tried to gun down commuters on the Thalys train to Paris; of Tarek Belgacem and Bertrand Nzohbonayo, who struck police officers with a meat cleaver and a knife, respectively; or the soldiers targeted outside a mosque in Valence and the Jewish community center in Nice in January and February of this year. All these plots flew under the police and intelligence radar yet either resulted in no casualties or were stopped by active duty officers or quick-thinking civilians once the attack got underway.
There is no doubt that security agencies are overburdened, have an exceptionally difficult job, and thwart more plots than not; it is often noted that “we need to get lucky every time; the terrorists only need to get lucky once,” and that is indeed true. But in France, the terrorists have not gotten lucky just once; they are getting lucky time and again. In other words, it is obviously not luck that is on their side.
A parliamentary commission established to examine some of France’s intelligence failings reported back earlier this month. It identified an unwieldy, complex bureaucracy, with six intelligence agencies reporting to various government ministries (economic, national defense, the interior). These agencies were collecting information but not connecting the dots. To help combat this issue, the commission called for the six agencies to be streamlined into one body. Although the creation of this U.S.-style National Counterterrorism Center could be a solution, one would be hard pressed to find many people in U.S. counterterrorism circles who believe that the NCTC has been a panacea.
The report also attempts to address the severe problem posed by prison radicalization by calling for the creation of a prison intelligence-gathering agency. This body, too, would focus on intelligence sharing with other domestic agencies. After all, the prison staff where Amedy Coulibaly, the Parisian Islamic State (ISIS)-inspired shooter of January 2015, had begun to show signs of radicalization did not convey that information to French intelligence.
Yet no one should pretend that implementing the reforms will mean an end to terrorist violence in France. The existing problems go far beyond the intelligence realm.
The truth may be that, in the short to medium term at least, mass casualty terrorism will just become an increasingly normal part of everyday life.For starters, terrorists are also becoming wise to the authorities’ limitations. Take the Kouachis, who carried out the Charlie Hebdo attacks. They struck at a smart time. The French authorities were overwhelmed with Syria-related casework. As such, they had turned their attention away from the 19th Arrondissement’s Buttes-Chaumont terror network the Kouachis were tied to and which had previously demanded so much security service attention. The Kouachis knew that they were no longer under surveillance.
Furthermore, ISIS has consistently recruited from the ranks of France’s criminal underworld: petty criminals, bank robbers, drug dealers, and local hoods. French intelligence obviously know where to start looking for the next ISIS-inspired terrorist, but it is unclear what the logical next step after that would be. It cannot put every Muslim with a rap sheet under surveillance: the resources are simply not available, and no one would likely want to live in a society where police are used that way. Thus all officials can try to do is to carry on making as informed a judgment as is possible.
This particular style of attack presents the same problem. The authorities know that both ISIS and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen have highlighted the utility of using vehicles as weapons. We do not know Bouhlel’s specific source of inspiration, but it is fair to say it was likely one of these two. Yet a realistic or indeed proportionate answer to such tactics is not stopping all Muslims with a criminal record from renting trucks.
All the while, the liberal values of the Republic and that of the reactionary Islamists living in France remain irreconcilable. And this problem goes far beyond the realm of tinkering with intelligence policy. One part of the answer must be to head off the danger at its source and to grind the Caliphate into the ground in Iraq and Syria. That does not eliminate the domestic threat though, which is primarily what France and so many other European countries face. The truth may be that there simply is not an acceptable answer to these dilemmas and that, in the short to medium term at least, mass casualty terrorism will just become an increasingly normal part of everyday life. This admittedly pessimistic view is one that seems increasingly realistic.
Yet in the short term, France must revamp its approach to intelligence. “Our country was not ready. Now we must get ready,” concluded Georges Fenech, the lawmaker who headed the Parliamentary commission. He is right. The consequences of not being so have been starkly laid out on all too regular a basis.