The war on terrorism has its own very special nature. It is a battlefield where intelligence agencies stage a ferocious campaign against a little known extremist enemy. In this, the war on terrorism is different from conventional wars.
This is why military excellence does not always do in such battle against a faceless enemy. The war on terrorism is an intelligence one in the first place. It requires a lot of secret operations, surveillance and investigations.
It is a war of darkness where secrecy plays a central role. This makes the war on terrorism stand in stark contrast with other battles that include measures taken in broad daylight in order to assure the general public and boost the popularity of political leaders.
Security agencies cracking down on terrorist organizations aim for more than just tracking these organizations and disbanding them. They continually monitor large secret networks with the aim of getting information. These agencies mainly work to closely follow what happens inside terrorist organizations to be able to anticipate the timing the members of these organizations will carry out attacks.
By the same token, the intelligence war on terrorism does not seek to torpedo terrorist organizations from inside. It does not aim to create a direct battle with these organizations, like in the case of conventional wars, either.
It aims at the collection of information that helps security and intelligence agencies to discover terrorist operations before they take place. The success of terrorist organizations in perpetrating attacks is proof of the failure of security and intelligence agencies in preventing these attacks.
Nevertheless, the same agencies have to learn lessons from their failures. They need to obtain proof of future attacks.
This is an endless cat and mice game. It has been so between terrorist organizations and intelligence agencies ever since the appearance of terrorism in the 19th century. However, the history of the struggle between both parties had never seen the changes and alterations it is seeing today.
This is a conflict that has been raging on for the past quarter century. In this quarter century, intelligence agencies have been trying to uncover new threats caused by the ability of terrorist groups to gain more strength and develop their technical power in a way that helps them sabotage the work of security agencies.
The war between intelligence agencies and terrorist groups gained more momentum, especially after the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington. It reached its climax in 2014 after the appearance of Daesh. The emergence of this venomous organization has affected the whole Western hemisphere. Nonetheless, France was the scene of most attacks, especially in 2015.
Eleven terrorist attacks took place in France in less than four years. These attacks claimed the lives 245 people. In addition to this, terrorist groups tried, but failed, to stage 17 more attacks. French security agencies also foiled around 50 other attacks.
The Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015 and the attacks in Paris and Saint-Denis in November of the same year opened the door for the emergence of an unprecedented type of terrorism, namely the one emanating from inside the French society.
The truck attack in Nice on July 14, 2016 and the attacks in Carcassonne on March 23, 2018 made French intelligence agencies realize that the attacks would not be perpetrated by jihadists from outside France, especially from war-torn countries, such as Iraq and Syria, any more. They also realized that the new mode of attacks would particularly come from people living in France, who are spontaneously influenced by Daesh, even as they live thousands of miles away.
The new jihadist groups make links with criminal quarters that act as incubators of terrorist projects. These incubators help terrorist organizations do without the logistical support networks that can be tracked by intelligence agencies.
The new mode of Daesh jihad is primitive and unprofessional. Nonetheless, it is powerful because it combines both the jihadist desire and internal elements. This jihad acquires more strength, being dependent on the criminal quarters whence most of the perpetrators of terrorist attacks come.
This made it almost impossible for counterterrorism agencies to either predict or prevent terrorist attacks before they happen. The media community was shocked after it learned that the perpetrators of terrorist attacks were all known to security and counterterrorism agencies. This did not, however, help these agencies prevent these attacks or stop their perpetrators before staging them.
This was why the same agencies came under intense fire from the media community which cast doubts about their abilities. The same community made calls for confronting terrorism militarily.
Those backing this argument say lone-wolf attacks are the most outstanding tool of the new jihadists. They add that these attacks cannot be predicted and that their perpetrators can be confronted only at the time of the attack.
New challenges cannot be overcome simply by taking an endless series of measures, such as the renewal of the state of emergency, raising the alert level after each attack, or deploying a large number of troops in all places, even as these troops are not well-trained to face the terrorist threat.
Counterterrorism cannot be considered a war per se, otherwise the anti-terrorism fight can turn into a comic thing like the international war against terrorism launched by President George W. Bush following the 9/11 attacks in 2011 did. Bush boasted that the downfall of the Taliban rule in Afghanistan would herald the end of al-Qaeda. He also said that the downfall of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq would open the door for democracy in this Arab country. However, both events opened the door for unprecedented unrest in the two states and the emergence of a new generation of terrorists around the world.
Daesh’s modus operandi is new and poses great challenges to intelligence agencies. The French intelligence succeeded in reformulating itself, acquired new technological tools and hired new personnel in order to be up to the terrorist threat. This happened three years after the attacks that took place on November 13, 2015. Around 42 terrorist operations had been sabotaged in France since 2016, thanks to efforts by intelligence agencies in that country.
The number of personnel at concerned agencies had been increased. The number of operatives at the General Directorate for Internal Security had been increased by 18.25% over four years, bringing the total number of operatives at the directorate to 4,038. The number of operatives at the Central Directorate on Domestic Intelligence had been increased by 24.34%.
This agency of 2,600 operatives was established in 2014. It succeeded in substituting the Directorate General on Exterior Security. This agency is responsible for assessing and analyzing data on general security. It covers all French cities, except for capital Paris. It contains 97 sectors that oversee the work of 158 offices nationwide.
The Central Directorate on Domestic Intelligence has become the most important counterterrorism agency, especially when it comes to the surveillance of persons with a criminal record. The General Directorate for Internal Security used to deal with the lists of persons with criminal records which contain 4,000 names. The Central Directorate on Domestic Intelligence deals with 5,500 files that include 19,744 people. These files are called the “Extremist Prevention Forms”.
The creation of these forms was a cornerstone of the reformulation of the French intelligence. Suspected terrorists used to be registered in the “Ice Form” which concerned those posing potential danger to general security.
Out of the 19,744 people registered in the Extremist Prevention Forms, 11,000 are active and are under the watch of the intelligence agency. Other people registered in the forms are being assessed.
A total of 513 people are in French jails for carrying out terrorist attacks. This is a very small number, given the fact that there are 70,000 prisoners in the whole of France. However, communication between inmates and jihadists inside the jails has radicalized 1,145 inmates.
Most jihadists were handed short prison sentences before 2016, because extremism was not criminalized in France before November 2015. This is why 48 people will be released by the end of 2019. Other prisoners will be released during 2022. Around 402 prisoners will also be released before the end of 2019.
To protect the French society against the dangers these ex-prisoners will pose, a permanent unit to monitor their activities after release had already been established. The unit will liaise between the different intelligence agencies.
Roland Jacquard is a writer, a consultant and the head of the Roland Jacquard Company for International Security Consultations.