The attack at the "Charlie Hebdo" newspaper in Paris in January of this year was a sign of things to come, a red warning sign with a black flag hanging over it. It was only a matter of time before the execution of another bloody attack in France. Still, the wave of attacks executed by the "messengers" of the Islamic State in Paris left France, and all of Europe, surprised, amazed and stunned. The sense of shock is clear. The murderous violence and the tragic consequences of the attacks are not something one would expect a French or a European person in the late twentieth century, to be ready for. However, the beginning of the 21st century has introduced a new reality. In March 2004, a murderous attack was carried out by al-Qaeda at the Atocha train station in Madrid, using three explosive devices that exploded at intervals of seconds, claiming the lives of 191 people. The violent "Arab Spring", the violent occupation and terrorism of the "Islamic State", brought waves of Islamic extremism hitting France and Europe. It should be said that Islamic extremists in Europe repeatedly proclaimed exactly what they are going to do. Then, as stated, the attack at Charlie Hebdo came. And still, the French citizen, and possibly the government as well, is surprised by the force of evil.
In the coming days these attacks will be analyzed at all relevant levels, first and foremost by the intelligence and security systems in France, Belgium, Germany and other countries in the free world where there is a potential threat that terrorist networks may carry out similar attacks. From a sober perspective, once we combine the fact that French Muslims (some are third and fourth generation in France) and many Muslim civilians in other European countries have recently joined jihadi activities in Iraq and Syria and are involved in ISIS or in fanatic religious branches of ISIS in Europe, and the events of 11/13/15, we can presume that these kind of attack will not be a surprise. However, and in view of the strong violence of the attacks this weekend, it is impossible to exaggerate in the severity of the problem that grows out of the "wandering" of European youngsters in the deserts of Syria and Iraq, and their return to their homes in France and Europe as "alumnus of the ISIS jihad". They return to Europe with the murderous ideology they've been washed with and that led them to the Middle East. They are now equipped with operational experience in various frighteningly violent combat zones and mental preparedness to perform various acts of terrorism; compared to which the horrific images seen on television screens last weekend seem insignificant.
Regarding the data known to us from the media so far, the existence of passports on the bodies of the terrorists (Egyptian, French, Belgian, and Syrian - apparently posing as a refugee) presents a recurring theme from the attack at Charlie Hebdo. In that attack, identity cards were found in the getaway car that was abandoned by the terrorists who retreated from the scene, apparently in order to leave clear fingerprints, meant to emphasize the identify the perpetrators, their belonging to ISIS and "strengthen" the appalling massacre they committed.
At the tactical level, it is worth noting the fighting level of the terrorists in comparison to previous attacks carried out in France and Belgium in the past year. Unlike previous attacks at Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish Museum in Brussels, where the terrorists' standard of fighting was very low (although they still "achieved results", causing excessive death), in the present case, as is evident from the reports of survivors, it seemed that the terrorists were skilled. It reflected in efficient use of ammunition, firing short bursts or single shots, throwing grenades, and ultimately detonating an explosive device carried on their body and suicide. Much like attacks carried out by al-Qaeda around the world, also in this case, the fact that the attacks were carried out simultaneously is notable as an operational characteristic. The number of attackers, timing, logistical support and early planning and design indicate an operational capability.
However, it is worth noting that the targets – except for the stadium; where the security array at the entrance managed to prevent a mass terror attack – are mostly “soft targets”, which have not forced the attackers to rub shoulders with a security array. On the other hand, they were targets with large concentration of audience, which led to maximize the casualties. It is likely that the attacks, with emphasis on the attack in the theater, were done after studying the area and gathering information on the security arrangements, whatever they were – since the serious consequences imply that there were no decent security arrangements, which could have prevented or delayed the execution of the attacks.
It seem that the serious consequences are related to the absence of two essential elements in the French counterterrorism: first and foremost preventive intelligence, and second a deterring security array.
At the current balance, as it is portrayed in the media, there is no doubt that ISIS achieved great success in carrying out the attacks and gained, as far as it is concerned, a significant achievement. In simple words – maximizing terrorism. Moreover, past experience shows that such attacks produce high motivation among terror organizations, leading to attempts to carry out additional attacks. This requires an immediate, drastic answer, in order to create deterrence.
Nevertheless, historically, this is meaningless data, since we do not know yet if this is the end of the beginning of a terror campaign in Europe, or the beginning of the end of Europe's war on terror.
France leads with great success the war against the terrorist infrastructure in southern Sahara. Since December 2012, France led the Operation “Serval” in Mali, aimed at destroying terrorist infrastructure in the country. In August 2014 France transferred to five African countries the torch to lead the war against radical Islamic terrorist organizations in Chad and south Sahel, while they receive support and assistance from France.
France recently established a high-quality array of intelligence, based on the most advanced data system which allows gathering preemptive intelligence on people arriving at the aerial border crossings of the country. This is without a doubt a significant step that will help the counterterrorism efforts, and if it will be linked – as planned – with other countries it will surely further improve the monitoring and tracking of terrorists. However, this is only one – yet significant – brick in the defensive wall facing terrorism.
If previous attacks – such as the attack at "Charlie Hebdo", in the Jewish school in Toulouse, at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, the murder of French troops in Lyon, and the vehicle run down attacks in France in the last year – weren’t enough, there is no doubt that the recent series of attacks requires a radical shift in the authorities' perception, in France as well as other Western European countries, especially Belgium and Germany. The shift should be expressed by tracking suspected terrorists, dealing with the infrastructure of extremist preachers who recruit terrorist elements and the environment that supports it, in order to improve prevention.
At the same time, an appropriate consolidation of a national security concept is required, which should include a security establishment to threatened and sensitive targets, in order to enable thwarting attacks where preemptive intelligence is absent. The French security forces have often proven their professional abilities in dealing with terrorists in different arenas both in France and abroad. The main change required is largely in the hands of the political leadership, which is required to make courageous decisions that would provide the security forces with the required space and tools to operate.
In light of the high involvement of France in the fighting against radical Islamic terrorism, ISIS' statement claiming responsibility for the attacks, which mentioned France as bearing the flag of the Crusaders against Islam, places France at the forefront of the countries threatened by fundamentalist Islamic terrorism. Now, after the threat was realized, the obvious conclusion calls for massive deployment both in the strategic and tactical levels. This deployment requires first intelligence, then intelligence, and then more intelligence. How do you gather intelligence on citizens in a democracy? France and the EU may need to discuss it now. At the global level, intelligence cooperation between all the countries of the free world, in which Israel will probably assist, is the key to success.
It seems that this time the authorities in France, as well as in the EU, will have to make sweeping changes in order to prevent the recurrence of such terrorist attacks carried out so easily.
Meir Gershuni is the owner of a consulting firm that specializes in the design and execution of security layouts for critical infrastructures.