TerrorismFrance debates its anti-terror approach

Published 2 April 2012

The French are debating their anti-terrorism policies in the wake of the worst terrorist attacks on French soil; the debate centers on whether or not the authorities have the right approach to combating terrorism 

French security forces corner Mohammed Merah // Source: newsnow.gr

Intense debate continues in France in the aftermath of the worst terror attacks on French soil, centering around the country’s approach to combating terrorism. Central to the debate is the question of whether the police and security authorities had failed to identify the killer in time. The question many ask is whether or not the French authorities have been using the correct approach in dealing with the terrorist threat, and whether they should depend less on human intelligence and more on U.S.-like system of an expensive, automated technologies to monitor electronic communications and maintain interrelated databases of potential threats.

Beginning 11 March, a series of three attacks in and around the French city of Toulouse, left seven dead and five others injured, four of them seriously.  After the third attack on 19 March, police had identified, cornered, and killed Mohammed Merah, a twenty-three year old French citizen of Algerian-born parents. They also arrested Merah’s brother, Abdelkader, on charges of complicity in the killings.

All of Merah’s victims were either Muslim members of the French military, or Jewish civilians, including three children killed in one attack on a Jewish day school.

Merah filmed all of the killings with a GoPro camera strapped to his body and sent the films to al Jazeera. After a request from French president Nicolas Sarkozy, al Jazeera opted not to air the videos.

According to Stephen Ehrlanger of the New York Times, because of their colonial history of dealing with terrorism and Islam, combined with more limited budgets, the French have come to depend more on human intelligence in the form of personal contacts and mosque infiltration and less on telephone intercepts and computer databases.

CNN reports that, according to French authorities, Merah had traveled through seven Middle Eastern countries on his way to Afghanistan in 2010. A petty criminal who had spent some time in prison, CNN reports that Merah had been radicalized by that time.

The dependence on human intelligence without the cumulative data that can be cross-matched to it leaves the French more vulnerable to gaps in their intelligence, as it did in this case. The French state is centralized and has, compared to the United States, enormous power to pry into the private lives of its citizens, and to make arrests in the name of preemption.

If, however, the French had developed an American-style database approach, they would have been able to apply their human intelligence capabilities, and may have been able to prevent the attacks.

Among the features of the debate is a proposal by President Sarkozy to make it a criminal offense “habitually” to visit jihadi Web sites.

The group Reporters Without Borders argues strenuously against the president’s proposal, saying “The proposed solution is disproportionate and could lead to a generalized Internet surveillance that threatens individual freedoms by enlisting Internet service providers in an attempt to identify those who consult such websites.”