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The French Counter-Terrorism Model By: Olivier Guitta
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, September 08, 2005

After the recent horrific terrorist attacks in London, the British model of counter-terrorism has revealed some of its limits. Nonetheless, one has to acknowledge that the system prevented some attacks in the past. Also the quickness of catching the perpetrators of the failed July 21 attacks is a victory for the most advanced constant electronic surveillance in the world. But unfortunately, some flaws, especially in terms of human intelligence are noticeable. Thus, the British are presently reevaluating their approach and looking closer at the French model.

Interestingly enough, the French authorities have been very frustrated by the lack of action of their British counterparts on terrorism matters, particularly since 1994. For instance, when a French investigative magistrate went to London to interview eight suspected members of the Algerian terrorist group Armed Islamic Group (known as GIA), British authorities denied his visit.[1] Also, in 1998-1999, the DGSE had to organize spying operations in London to watch the Finsbury Park mosque along with radical leaders such as Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada.[2] 

One of the most important aspects of France’s counter-terrorism policy lies in its judicial organization. In fact, the main actor, the very specialized anti-terrorist “super judge” –who is as much an investigator as a judge – has very wide powers. He or she can: 

·         hold suspected terrorists for four days without charging them;

·         forbid any lawyers for the first three days of custody;

·         issue and carry out search warrants at night;

·         ask for a non-jury trial because of potential threats to jurors by terrorists;

·         round up preemptively potential terrorists.


But in order to function properly, this system demands total cooperation between the different services of police involved and the judge. This total integration is the force of the French system, whereby everybody involved has access to the whole picture. This allows for a much more offensive and preventive approach than the English model for example.


Nonetheless what is the major joker of France’s counter-terrorism organization is a unit of the French police called les Renseignements Généraux or RG. Yves Bertrand, the ex Chief of the RG, described his job as “ the Republic’s land-mine specialist.”[3] And since most new terrorists acts are homegrown and Islamist-inspired, as was the case in London, the RG have been focusing on potential dangerous French residents for at least the past twenty years. Keep in mind that France suffered two extremely violent waves of terrorism, one in 1986 and one in 1995 and had no choice but to tackle the issue.


The RG have through infiltration, flexibility and amazing groundwork acquired an unsurpassed expertise regarding dangerous domestic elements and communities. As a first resource, the RG is using informers, willing to help – for money or in most cases nothing – disrupt terrorist cells. As Yves Bertrand put it: “ It is this network of human sources which helped us understand Islamist terrorism.” [4] For instance, after a tip from a source, the RG was able to dismantle a cell composed of ex “Afghans” who were preparing bombings in France. Among them, was Djamel Beghal, an Al Qaeda chief operative, who was recently sentenced to ten years in jail for having prepared a suicide operation against the US embassy in Paris.


Also, the French understand how clerics and imams radicalize members of the Arab community and help to enlist them in terrorist causes.  For instance, Louis Caprioli, former head of the counter-terrorism unit of the DST, the French equivalent of the FBI, said that behind every Muslim terrorist is a radical imam, and the RG have been monitoring imams to prevent potential terrorists from emerging. Preventive measures since September 2001 included refusing visas to imams coming from Saudi Arabia, expelling around fifty Islamist radicals including imams, and arresting 322 potential terrorists, of which 91 have been sentenced already.


Mosques are also potential hotbeds for jihadists: indeed, some of them were used to organize paramilitary training and also the departure of some of their members to fight the Jihad in Afghanistan and Iraq and were quite successful at it. No wonder then that, according to Robert Leiken, a Nixon Center study of 373 mujahideen in western Europe and North America between 1993 and 2004 found more than twice as many Frenchmen as Saudis. This has forced the RG to focus a lot of its energy on surveillance, really concentrating on the Salafist – a very rigorist version of Islam – mosques. Indeed, out of the 1,534 mosques accounted for by the RG, 150 are controlled by radicals, out of which between forty and fifty are under Salafist influence, representing at least 5,000 members.[5] Every Friday at 6 PM, the Interior Minister gets on his desk the summary of all the sermons pronounced in French radical mosques.[6]


Interestingly enough, ex RG’s principal, Yves Bertrand, testified on July 9, 2003 to the French National Assembly that on top of listening to the radical preachers, the agents also stick around for the debates after prayers which most times provide very crucial information.


Thoroughness is the name of the game and the RG is on top of things. That’s why, some Muslim organizations are closely monitored especially the UOIF (Union des Organisations Islamiques de France), which is an offshoot of the ancestor of terrorist organizations, the Muslim Brotherhood. It is not by chance that Swiss Islamist Tariq Ramadan, grandson of Muslim Brotherhood’s founder Hassan al Banna and close to the UOIF, was banned in 1995 from entering France because of the danger he posed to national security (this also could explain why the same happened to him last summer when he tried to enter the US). The RG has been at the forefront of denouncing the Islamization of young French Muslims and the dangers towards potential terrorism, which is what London is discovering today. For instance, a 1995 report issued by the RG already warned of the risks of manipulation of some French Muslims. In fact, the report stated:


More than two hundred and ten associations, among them about twenty linked to armed Islamists movements, are proselytizing… The threat comes more from the political use by activist groups of young criminals seeking an identity and ready to rally a fight presented as legitimate.[7]


The RG is also controlling and monitoring businesses formed by radicals or sympathizers to the cause and that could be used for money laundering, recruiting, and planning attacks. This is clearly part of a global strategy to constantly destabilize these networks and put pressure on them. For instance, just for the first quarter of 2005, 500 people have been controlled along with 30 mosques and 150 businesses.[8]


Also the RG is monitoring on a daily basis radical websites to gather as much information as possible about new cells or radical organizations and associations.


One of the newest priorities for the RG is to look at the ever-growing convert to Islam population. Indeed according to AFP, they number around 50,000 and are showing up more and more often in terrorism cases. The RG estimate that around 1,500 are radicals and potentially very dangerous, in some cases even more fanatical than salafist Muslim-born. In addition, because of the fact that a lot of converts switch to Islam in jail, the RG also closely studies what is going on in French prisons.


The RG were quick to notice in early 2001 that the threat had moved from Algerian based organizations – like the GIA which was behind the 1995 terrorist attacks – to Afghan-Pakistani ones. About 300 French nationals went through Afghan terrorist camps, among them Zacarias Moussaoui, the presumed 20th hijacker in the September 11 attacks. That’s why the RG have been very thorough in investigating all the French Muslim nationals who had spent time in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In order to do that, it used its resources in the suburbs to track these individuals down and put them on their radar screen. Another cumbersome way to identify these potential terrorists is to get and study the list of French nationals who have declared having lost their passports in Great Britain, Pakistan and any Arab countries. [9]


The danger for French police is the risk of being too early – arresting only small fry and not get the big fish – or too late by waiting too long and suffer a terrorist attack. For example, on October 5, 2001, the day before a soccer game between France and Algeria, they opted on arresting a huge network of militants they had been watching and listening to for months because of a phone conversation where one of them said: “ We have to move during the game.”[10]


The constant surveillance and pressure of Islamists is definetely disrupting their planned actions and helping to dismantle their terror cells. For proof, this strategy has pushed a lot of them into exile. Their favored destination has been London and also recently Germany.


On top of having a very strong judicial weapon, France decided long ago to focus most of its efforts on information, intelligence and infiltration. Even if it meant in some cases restricting civil liberties. Our societies have to realize that some of the non-military weapons we can use to fight terrorism at home are going to have some impact on our freedom. The July 25 meeting between French Prime Minister De Villepin and British Premier Blair regarding terrorism is clearly a sign of a better cooperation between the two countries. Also it looks like France and Britain are going to learn from each other. Indeed, France would like to copy England’s electronic security system and England is going to tackle more aggressively the Radical Islam propaganda within its borders. Thus, a mix of the two approaches might turn out to be pretty close to the best any democracies can attain in terms of counter-terrorism.


Olivier Guitta is a freelance writer specializing in the Middle East and Europe.

[1] Sunday Times ( London), July 10, 2005

[2] L’Express (Paris), July 11, 2005

[3] L’Express (Paris), April 30, 2003

[4] L’Express (Paris), April 30, 2003

[5] Le Monde, Paris, February 21, 2005

[6] Christophe Deloire and Christophe Dubois, Les islamistes sont deja là, (Albin Michel: Paris, 2004), p. 313.

[7] “Réislamisation des jeunes musulmans sous couvert d’actions socio-éducatives”, Direction Centrale des Renseignements Généraux, 1995

[8] Le Monde, Paris, July 15, 2005

[9] Ali Laidi and Ahmed Salam, Le Jihad en Europe, (Seuil: Paris, 2002), p. 262.

[10] Ibid. p. 264.

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Olivier Guitta is a Washington DC based foreign affairs consultant.

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