A police fence cordons off the entrance and blocks the view of the Bataclan music venue in Paris, scene of a single of the worst attacks on 13 November. Photograph: Malte Christians/dpa/Corbis
Officials in France and Belgium are beneath pressure from frightened and angry citizens, who want to know how their safety solutions let men they knew to be involved in extremism carry out Friday’s attacks in Paris.
At least 3 of nine people now identified to have been involved in the Paris strikes had been identified by safety services as prospective threats.
Ismail Omar Mostefai, 29, involved in the Bataclan concert hall attack, had been listed in 2010 for reported radicalisation. He still managed to make it to Turkey, and almost certainly Syria, in 2013.
Samy Amimour, a 28-year-old from Drancy, north of Paris, had been under official investigation because October 2012 and was the topic of an international arrest warrant given that late 2013, when he too is believed to have gone to Syria.
Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Belgian suspected mastermind of the attacks, has boasted publicly of entering and leaving the nation to plot terrorist attacks. He was involved in a series of planned attacks there that had been foiled by the police final January, but escaped to Syria at least six months ago, officials think.
Sadly, these sorts of lapses are not new. Mohammed Merah, who killed seven folks in 2012, was not just on the radar of nearby safety services in his home town of Toulouse, but was really interviewed on his return from a training camp in Pakistan just months just before his shooting spree. An officer accepted his story of searching for a wife in the unstable south Asian state.
Other services have made equivalent errors. US authorities came across the trail of the 9/11 hijackers but failed to connect the clues. MI5 had come across Mohammad Sidique Khan, the leader of the 7/7 bombers, years ahead of that strike. The service had been intermittently tracking Michael Adebowale and fellow Muslim convert Michael Adebolajo for years before they murdered Lee Rigby, a British soldier, in London in 2013. The older of the two Tsarnaev brothers who bombed the Boston Marathon that year was investigated by the FBI but deemed harmless.
1 explanation for these failures is the nature of Islamic militancy, particularly given the resources necessary to watch a single person. It requires dozens of officers to mount 24/7 surveillance of 1 person and hours to listen to phone calls or comb other communications information. Even the best resourced solutions as a result have to prioritise.
Safety solutions have evolved different techniques of undertaking this. Most grade the threat from an person, focusing on those who are deemed higher threat. These not regarded as an imminent danger are barely monitored.
But extremists, like everyone else, do not behave predictably. Radicalisation is not a linear, uniform process. An individual regarded peripheral and harmless can quickly turn into much more threatening. Likewise, an individual who is noticed as quite unsafe can, for a variety of reasons, move to significantly less threatening activities or even cease their involvement in extremism altogether.
Indeed, as Stephen Grey, an professional on espionage, points out, it is these former militants who are often the greatest sources for intelligence solutions.
“Of course there is a enormous worth in surveillance but… receiving good human intelligence from within a radicalised neighborhood is absolutely key. Some of the ideal sources have been the people who have been close in but who don’t like the way factors are building. Counter-terrorist campaigns have turned when people are ready to literally shop their brother or husband,” stated Grey, the author of the recently published book The New Spymasters.
In the case of Mohammed Merah, an apparent abandoning of jihadi activism may possibly have been a deliberate ploy to throw the spooks off his track. Or it could have been genuine but temporary. The interest of Adebelajo, a single of the killers of Rigby, in violent or even non-violent activism appears to have waxed and waned more than the years.
If providing safety officials higher powers of surveillance may help in some approaches, it is far from a silver bullet, however. Agencies are already swamped by vast quantities of information. Human intelligence remains the most worthwhile tool – and human errors the largest supply of failures.