Terror Threats and Alerts in France

Terror Threats and Alerts in France is republished with permission of STRATFOR.

By Scott Stewart

The Eiffel Tower was evacuated Sept. 28 after an anonymous bomb threat against the symbolic Parisian tourist attraction was phoned in; no explosive device was found. The day before the Eiffel Tower threat, French authorities closed the Gare Saint-Lazare in central Paris after an abandoned package, later determined innocuous, was spotted in the train station.

These two incidents serve as the latest reminders of the current apprehension in France that a terrorist attack is imminent. This concern was expressed in a very public way Sept. 11, when Bernard Squarcini, the head of France’s Central Directorate of Interior Intelligence (known by its French acronym, DCRI), told French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche that the risk of an attack in France has never been higher. Never is a long time, and France has long faced terrorist threats, making this statement quite remarkable.

Squarcini has noted in recent interviews that the combination of France’s history as a colonial power, its military involvement in Afghanistan and the impending French ban on veils that cover the full face and body (niqabs and burqas) combined to influence this threat environment.

A Month of Threats

After the French Senate approved the burqa ban Sept. 14 — which will go into effect next March — a bomb threat against the Eiffel Tower was called in that evening, causing French authorities to evacuate the site and sweep it for explosive devices.

On Sept. 16, five French citizens were abducted from the Nigerien uranium-mining town of Arlit in an operation later claimed by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a claim French Defense Minister Herve Morin later assessed as valid. In July, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon declared that France was at war with the North African al Qaeda franchise after the group killed a French hostage it had kidnapped in April. Fillon’s announcement came three days after the end of a four-day French-Mauritanian offensive against AQIM militants that resulted in the deaths of several militants. After the offensive, AQIM branded French President Nicolas Sarkozy an enemy of Allah and warned France that it would not rest until it had avenged the deaths of its fighters.

French officials have also received unsubstantiated reports from foreign liaison services of plans for suicide bombings in Paris. National Police Chief Frederic Pechenard told Europe 1 radio Sept. 22 that in addition to the threatening statements from AQIM, the French have received specific information that the group is working to target France.

On Sept. 6, Der Spiegel reported that authorities were investigating reports provided by the United States that a German-born Islamist extremist arrested in Afghanistan has warned of possible terrorist attacks in Germany and elsewhere in Europe — including France — planned by jihadists based in Pakistan. This story hit the English-language media Sept. 28, and included reports that the threat may have involved plans to launch Mumbai-like armed assaults in multiple targets in Europe.

In the words of Squarcini to the press, these combined incidents mean “all the blinkers are on red.” This statement is strikingly similar to one in the 9/11 Commission Report attributed to then-CIA Director George Tenet, who said that in July 2001 “the system was blinking red.”

While an examination of the current threat situation in France is interesting, it is equally interesting to observe the way that the French are handling their threat warnings in the media.

The Threat Environment in France

While its neighbors such as Spain and the United Kingdom have suffered bloody attacks since 9/11, the French so far apparently have been spared — although there are some who suspect the yet-unsolved June 2009 crash of Air France Flight 447 may have resulted from foul play, along with the explosion at the AZF fertilizer plant in September 2001.

France has long been squarely in the crosshairs of jihadist groups such as AQIM. This is due not only to its former colonial involvement in North Africa but also to its continued support of governments in countries like Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia deemed un-Islamic by jihadists. It is also due to France’s military commitment in Afghanistan. Moreover, on the domestic side, France has a significant Muslim minority largely segregated in slums known in French as “banlieues” outside France’s major cities. A significant proportion of the young Muslim men who live in these areas are unemployed and disaffected. This disaffection has been displayed periodically in the form of large-scale riots such as those in October 2005 and November 2007, both of which resulted in massive property destruction and produced the worst civil unrest in France since the late 1960s. While not all those involved in the riots were Muslims, Muslims did play a significant and visible role in them.

Moves by the French government such as the burqa ban have stoked these tensions and feelings of anger and alienation. The ban, like the 2004 ban against headscarves in French schools, angered not only jihadists but also some mainstream Muslims in France and beyond.

Still, other than a minor bombing outside the the Indonesian Embassy in Paris in October 2004, France has seemingly been spared the type of attacks seen in Madrid in March 2004 and London in July 2005. And this is in spite of the fact that France has had to deal with Islamist militants for far longer than its neighbors. Algerian Islamist militants staged a series of attacks involving gas canisters filled with nails and bolts on the Paris subway system in 1995 and 1996, and during the 1980s France experienced a rash of terrorist attacks. In 1981 and 1982, a group known as the Lebanese Armed Revolutionary Faction attacked a series of diplomatic and military targets in several French cities. Algerian militants also hijacked an Air France flight in December 1994, a situation resolved when personnel from the French Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale (GIGN) stormed the aircraft in Marseilles and killed all four hijackers.

“Shoe Bomber” Richard Reid, who is serving a life sentence in the United States for trying to blow up a Paris-to-Miami flight with an explosives-stuffed shoe in December 2001, staged his attack out of France.

In 2001, French authorities broke up a French-Algerian terrorist cell planning to attack the U.S. Embassy in Paris. The six militants, some of whom French authorities had linked to terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, were convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

Also in 2001, Algerian extremists were convicted in connection with an aborted plot to attack a Christmas market at Strasbourg Cathedral on New Year’s Eve 2000.

In January 2005, French police arrested a cell of alleged Chechen and Algerian militants, charging members with plotting terrorist attacks in Western Europe. According to French authorities, the group planned attacks against government and Jewish targets in the United Kingdom as well as against Russian diplomatic and business targets in Western and Central Europe. Other targets included tourist attractions and crowds in the United Kingdom and France and French train stations.

More recently, in October 2009, French particle physicist Adlene Hicheur and his brother, Halim, who holds a Ph.D. in physiology and biomechanics, were arrested and charged with helping AQIM plan terrorist attacks in France.

In the final analysis, France is clearly overdue for a successful jihadist attack, and has been overdue for several years now. Perhaps the only thing that has spared the country has been a combination of proactive, skillful police and intelligence work — the kind that resulted in the thwarted attempts discussed above — and a little bit of luck.


France has a national security alert system called the Vigipirate, which has four levels:

  • Yellow, which means there is an uncertain threat.
  • Orange, which signifies there is a plausible threat.
  • Red, which signals a highly probable threat.
  • Scarlet, which indicates a certain or known threat.

The Vigipirate level has been set at red since the aftermath of the July 2005 London bombings. This level is probably justified given that France is overdue for an attack, and French authorities undoubtedly have been busy investigating a large number of potential threats since the decision was made to raise the level to red. Still, as we have long discussed, this type of warning system has a tendency to get some attention when the levels are initially raised, but after five years of living at level red, French citizens are undoubtedly experiencing some degree of alert fatigue — and this is why Squarcini’s recent statements are so interesting. Apparently, he does not have the type of hard intelligence required to raise the threat level to scarlet — or perhaps the French government does not want to run the political risk of the backlash to the restrictive security measures they would have to institute if they raised the level. Such measures could include dramatically increasing security personnel and checkpoints and closing certain metro stops, train stations and airports, all things that could be incredibly disruptive.

Generally speaking, a figure like Squarcini would not provide the type of warnings he has recently shared in the press if his service had a firm grasp on the suspects behind the plot(s) about which he is concerned. For example, the FBI felt it had good coverage of groups plotting attacks in some of the recent thwarted plots in the United States, including the group arrested in May 2009 and charged with plotting to bomb two Jewish targets in the Bronx and shoot down a military aircraft at an Air National Guard base. In such a case, the director of the FBI did not feel the need to alert the public to the threat; he believed his agents had everything under control. Therefore, that Squarcini is providing this warning indicates his service does not have a handle on the threat or threats.

Information about a pending threat is not released to the public lightly, because such information could well compromise the source of the intelligence and endanger the investigation into the people behind the plot. This would only be done in situations where one has little or no control over the potential threat. There are numerous factors that would influence the decision to release such information.

Perhaps one of the first is that in a democracy, where public officials and their parties can be held responsible for failure to prevent an attack — as the Aznar government in Spain was following the Madrid train bombings — information pertaining to pending threats may also be released to protect governments from future liability. Following every major attack in a democratic nation, there is always an investigation that seeks to determine who knew what about the threat and when. Making threat information public can spare politicians from falling victim to a witch hunt.

Alternatively, some suggest that French authorities are being pressured to make such warnings to distract the public from domestic problems and Sarkozy’s low popularity. Many also believe the French government has been using its campaign against the Roma as such a distraction. Sarkozy, widely perceived as law-and-order oriented and tough on crime and terrorism, is indeed struggling politically. While the current warnings may provide such a beneficial distraction for Sarkozy, it is our assessment that the terrorist threat to France is very real, and is not being fabricated for political purposes.

Warnings also can be issued in an effort to pre-empt an attack. In cases in which authorities have intelligence that a plot is in the works, but insufficient information to identify the plotters or make arrests, announcing that a plot has been uncovered and security has been increased is seen as a way to discourage a planned attack. With the devolution of the jihadist threat from one based upon a central al Qaeda group to one based upon regional franchises, small cells and lone wolves, it is more difficult to gather intelligence that indicates the existence of these diverse actors, much less information pertaining to their intent and capabilities. In such a murky environment, threat information is often incomplete at best.

Whatever Squarcini’s motive, his warning should serve to shake the French public out of the alert fatigue associated with spending five years at the red level. This should cause the public (and cops on the beat) to increase their situational awareness and report suspicious behavior. The suspicious package seen at the Gare Saint-Lazare on Monday may well have been reported as a result of this increased awareness.

As the jihadist threat becomes almost as diffuse as the criminal threat, ordinary citizens who practice good situational awareness are an increasingly important national security resource — a complex network of eyeballs and brains that Squarcini may have been attempting to activate with his warning. With the burqa ban scheduled to begin next spring, French troops in Afghanistan and the ongoing conflict with AQIM, the threats are likely to continue for the near term — meaning France will remain on alert.

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