Fighting on backfoot as terrorists keep changing the script in ever dirtier war
For 16 years between 1996 and 2012, as America was hit by 9/11 and London experienced 7/7, France avoided any major jihadist attacks on its soil and developed a reputation as Europe's "counterterrorist powerhouse". Its intelligence capability and knowledge of jihadist networks is extensive, its police forces are hard-hitting, its anti-terrorism laws draconian. Some experts also claimed that the French state's strict approach to integrating minorities had reduced its radicalisation problem to a minimum. British, US and other government delegations used to visit Paris to learn from how the French were combating jihadist networks. But France no longer appears to offer a model of successful counterterrorism - and not just because of last week's attacks in Paris. French jihadists have carried out three significant terrorist attacks in the last three years in France and Belgium. A reassessment of the French approach is long overdue.
France has long had powerful intelligence agencies, and in recent decades, these services have developed extensive coverage of terrorist networks and a deep knowledge of jihadism both at home and internationally. After 9/11, the French provided the United States with an in-depth understanding of al-Qa'ida along with a range of useful intelligence on terrorists linked to the organisation.
However, on three occasions since 2012, jihadists known to the French authorities have slipped through the net to commit terrorist attacks. Two of the perpetrators of last week's attacks were not only on France's intelligence radar, but they had also been convicted of terrorism-related offences and had served prison sentences.
In May of last year, French citizen Mehdi Nemmouche killed four people at a Jewish museum in Brussels. French intelligence knew that he had gone to fight in Syria and had returned to Europe - but they were unable to help their Belgian counterparts stop this attack. France's domestic intelligence agency also knew of and interviewed French citizen Mohamed Merah, suspicious about his extremist tendencies and travels in Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, in a series of attacks in March 2012, Merah evaded detection as he killed three off-duty soldiers, and three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school.
All intelligence agencies have to make difficult choices about which individuals to prioritise for intrusive surveillance from the potentially thousands of people that could be suspected of involvement in terrorist networks. All have made mistakes.
Experts such as Robert Leiken have claimed that France's republican emphasis on a strong national identity, which involves a strict approach to integrating minorities, has helped to reduce its radicalisation problem to a minimum. The French, it seemed, had found a way to reduce the problem of terrorism at its source.
Contrast this, said Leiken and others, against weak and divided Britain with its multicultural approach that only fostered separation and extremism.
Yet, contrary to Leiken's analysis, radicalisation in France has been accelerating in recent years, leading to three jihadist atrocities in western Europe since 2012. The police in France are not overly concerned about Arab or Muslim community sentiment. As one French police officer told me: "I am aware of how the British police itself tries to discuss with the different communities. We have a different approach. We believe that it is for the community itself to play its Republican role, and it's not for the services of the state to come and remind [people] of the essential rules of community life in France in any case."
French society gives its police a good deal of leeway, in which context they have often mounted indiscriminate counterterrorist operations - especially during the 1990s when contemporary jihadism first emerged in France - arresting as many as 160 people in one operation. Between 2001 and 2010, France deported 129 alleged extremists who were deemed to pose a threat to national security. Over the same period, Britain removed just nine. These crackdowns have often disrupted terrorist networks and many jihadists even moved away from France, to neighbouring European countries.
Yet increasingly, questions are being asked about whether this tough approach may prove counterproductive over the long term. Even France, which is highly proficient in the security realm, finds that it is practically impossible to stamp out terrorism.
A better approach is to make your society resilient against terrorism with an ability to put attacks in perspective and move on. Unfortunately, the last week has not been very encouraging in that regard. Three men with guns making relatively small attacks on soft targets have been able to garner a disproportionately high degree of attention. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
Dr Frank Foley is a lecturer in the Department of War Studies at King's College London and author of 'Countering Terrorism in Britain and France'