McClatchy Foreign Staff
PARIS -- The terrorism 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 Islamist organizations with its cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. French police followed, photographed and listened in on the suspects, and at least some of their terrorist 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 and two police officers there to protect them.
So the question being asked in Paris, around Europe and around the rest of the world, is ‘how did it happen?’ If known suspects can hit known and protected targets, how can unknown targets be protected from unknown attackers?
The simple answer, anti-terrorism 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, Netherlands, said that in the end, it comes down to numbers. An estimated 600 to 1,000 French citizens are “jihadi tourists” who have traveled to Syria or Iraq to fight with the Islamic State or other terrorist organizations for a short time, 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 spoke on the condition of anonymity because he works 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.”
Meanwhile on Saturday, a search continued for 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 terrorist 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. On Saturday, 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 travel to Syria as the violence unfolded in Paris last week, she would have had a lot of company.
An estimated 3,000 or more Europeans are known to have made the journey, and the primary concern of European anti-terrorism officials is in determining how much of a threat these people are when they return.
Terrorism experts worry that when they return, they are not a potential threat in only their home nations, but also throughout the European Union, which largely has no border controls.
More resources for counterterrorist efforts have not been enough, 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 attackers had been followed for about a decade.
Said and Cherif Kouachi, native Parisians, were both on terrorist 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-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and he was on the U.S. no-fly list.
His younger brother Cherif, 32, was better known to French security officials. He’d been arrested three times for terrorism-related activity. Security officials had recorded his phone conversations and photographed his meetings with other terrorist suspects.
According to Le Monde, Cherif’s contacts were almost a Who’s Who of the French terrorist 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 Musee 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 recordings and photos exist is a sign that Cherif was well known and followed. Still, Cherif Kouachi, in a television interview broadcast moments before he was killed by police gunfire Friday, said he had been able to travel to Yemen and meet with Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born cleric who was Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula’s external operations chief before he was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2011.
“I know the secret service, don’t worry about it,” Cherif Kouacki told an interviewer from France’s BFMTV. “I know very well how I was able to do things well.”
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 terrorist 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 terrorism 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 to this report from Irbil, Iraq.