Fighting Terrorism: Lessons from France

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LAURENT REBOURS/AP

France's anti-terrorist squad makes arrests outside Paris

The French have a long and intimate acquaintance with terror, earned in years of attacks by Algerian independence fighters. Although currently plagued by an Islamist terror threat, French authorities have made their country so inhospitable to terrorist networks that many have relocated to Germany. How did they do it? What lessons can the U.S. learn? And, perhaps most important, how many civil liberties are we willing to give up in the process?

The French connections

The French approach terrorism much like doctors approach the common cold: Rather than wiping it out completely, they look for ways to manage it. This is done through a combination of years of patient intelligence-gathering and police work to ascertain the terrorists' modus operandi, and a set of laws that would (and in France at times did) make civil libertarians' hair stand on end. These were necessary in part because the terrorists were not a single band of extremists, but rather a multi-layered series of cells and networks each contributing in a small way to sophisticated terror operations whose scope and magnitude is known only to one or two men. [an error occurred while processing this directive]

In the early 1990s, Islamist radicals found a pool of willing recruits in the cauldrons of youthful rage found in the impoverished suburban ghettoes that house many of France's 5 million people of Arab origin. The point of connection between the suburbs of Paris and Marseilles and Osama Bin Laden's Afghanistan-based networks came via Algeria. There, the military-backed government overturned elections won by the Islamists, banned their party and drove its most extreme elements underground — where they've led a merciless war of terror against politicians and citizens alike. The most notorious Algerian terror faction, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), had been founded by men who'd fought as volunteers alongside Bin Laden in Afghanistan's anti-Soviet 'jihad.' When that war ended with the Soviet withdrawal, the men moved into France and began recruiting young thugs and exploiting their larcenous talents to raise money and build an infrastructure to attack France for its support of the Algerian government.

A far-reaching law

Operatives recruited in France helped staged a series of bombing attacks during 1995 that left eight dead and around 150 wounded. French anti-terrorist police ultimately tracked down the bombers, and developed an extensive "human intelligence" capability to monitor the wider networks of which they'd been a part. French law-enforcement was also aided by a catch-all crime law: Simply by citing "association with wrong-doers involved in a terrorist enterprise," French police are able to arrest and detain any suspect in any crime whose goal, however remotely, can ultimately assist terrorist activity. That law shocks civil libertarians in the U.S. and Britain, but French officials retort that those countries' commitment to strict civil libertarian principles has made them havens where Islamist militants can plot terror with less risk of detection because of the legal restraints on techniques such as spot ID checks and information monitoring.

The combination of these laws and human-level intelligence gathering (infiltration and interrogation of suspects) helped France successfully uproot terrorist networks in the mid-1990s and to thwart outrages planned during the 1998 soccer World Cup. Casting the net wide revealed that many people police had previously assumed were simply petty crooks had actually been thugging for the Islamists.

Inside the terror networks

The French sweeps also revealed the informal and dispersed nature of the terror networks: They were mostly cut off from one another to contain the damage of detection or infiltration, and were guided by a limited number of people who'd move around assembling the fruits of each cell's particular talents — false documents from one, funds from another and weapons from a third, for example. The organizers who linked these discrete cells could then synchronize complex multiple attacks.

One case in point: The February trial of Fateh Kamel, a 40-year-old Algerian with Canadian citizenship, provided further evidence of the discrete patterns of the terror networks. Kamel had been arrested on a charge of "association with wrong-doers in relation with a terrorist enterprise," for his involvement in the "gang of Roubaix" — a group of young men whose criminal behavior had been considered anti-social rather than political.

Not your average gangsters

In 1996, following a failed car bomb attempt in Lille on the eve of a G7 summit there, French cops picked up two ethnic-Arab suspects, one of whom cracked under questioning and revealed the true nature of "gang of Roubaix." The group was in fact a collection of Muslim militants (most of them white French converts) who had been radicalized during visits to Bosnia. Robbery was used to finance arms purchases, and to create false ID documents to facilitate the movement of Islamist terrorists transiting France. The group had recruited men for their "holy war," and had staged attacks when instructed to do so.

Patient intelligence work revealed that Kamel was both an expert document forger, head of the network of which the Roubaix gang was a part and had also spent time in Afghanistan, where he'd been in contact with Bin Laden. French authorities say there's no way of proving whether Kamel "worked for bin Laden." But, they say, it is clear that in the decentralized, compartmentalized and intersecting root system of Islamic networks, Kamel had been given the responsibility for creating and transporting false ID documents used by militants being assembled in Turkey, Bulgaria, Belgium, France, Bosnia and North America.

The value of surveillance

The French simply followed Kamel around the globe for six months prior to his arrest, taking note of those with whom he met. That turned up names who'd cropped up elsewhere, and revealed some of the point men for the various regional networks with which Kamel had been put in contact. Based on Kamel's visits to Montreal, France's top anti-terrorist cop Jean-Louis Brugiere wanted to pay a call on Ahmed Ressam — but he was discouraged by incredulous Canadian authorities who considered the Algerian expatriate no more than a petty crook. This was the same Ahmed Ressam who in 1999 was arrested en route to Seattle with a car full of explosives.

Kamel and 23 associates were convicted for activities related to association with terrorist enterprises. There was no demonstrative proof of their service or allegiance to Bin Laden, although such links would be impossible to verify given the dispersed, cellular nature of these operations (thus organized precisely to prevent police from following a linear trail back to the top) and their vague hierarchy and direction. In other words, prosecutors may never find sufficient evidence to legally prove Bin Laden issued orders to various operatives, although it is clear their commitment to his cause functions as a kind of remote control.

The French experience also shows that the commitment level of terror recruits is far from uniform, and that opens a gap exploited by the authorities. "The ones that truly believe are the ones who become suicide pilots," says French terrorism expert Roland Jacquard. "The ones who don't — the ones responding to promises of money, and support for their families, or the ones simply acting out of hate — they end up with the grunt work of logistics, criminal activity, gun-running. Eventually, they'll burn out. When they do, they'll be valuable to intelligence people — if they're picked up." Identifying those people will be the prime test for U.S. intelligence forces in the years to come.