The French government will hire thousands of security officers, police forces and intelligence spies in the next three years and create a database of people suspected of having links to terrorism, Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced Wednesday, as France — and several of its European neighbors — weighs further surveillance measures that have raised privacy concerns in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris.
Valls said France would recruit 2,680 individuals for the police, justice, intelligence and defense sectors as it monitors roughly 3,000 people suspected of having ties to extremist groups — at a cost of roughly $500 million over three years. Internet providers and social media networks, he said, "have a legal responsibility under French law" to comply with the new directives, which would increase surveillance in the country.
The announcement comes amid an ongoing debate over whether France needs its own version of the Patriot Act to combat terrorism and keep a closer eye on French nationals who have joined the wars in Syria and Iraq. And French media have drawn parallels to the controversy sparked in the United States by the National Security Agency’s classified data collection programs.
Isabelle Falque-Pierrotin, head of France's data protection agency, told reporters on Wednesday that her agency would insist that surveillance privileges be allowed only if they are matched by greater legal protections for individuals' personal data and other guarantees on length of storage of data and the security of such databases.
But some experts say such legislative checks on expanding counterterrorism legislation – which was already being considered before the Paris attacks as terrorism threat levels had been elevated in various European countries – risk being omitted, as lawmakers capitalize on growing fears of foreign fighters with combat experience returning from the wars abroad.
“They are using the attacks to push forward the counterterrorism legislation,” said Katherine Brown, a defense studies lecturer at King’s College in London. “It makes it harder for opposition groups to resist [it].”
The French proposal comes as several European Union members prepare to accelerate legislation that would expand state security powers. In neighboring Belgium, where police foiled an alleged terrorist plot in Verviers last week, lawmakers said they would fast-track a 12-step plan to combat terrorism that included the isolation of suspects in prison and facilitating the revocation of passports and ID cards of fighters returning from the Middle East.
In Spain, where in 2004 bombs placed on rush hour trains by an Al-Qaeda-linked cell killed 191 people and injured more than 1,700, the government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is poised to announce a wide-ranging bill to combat “violent radicalization.” The measure, which is to be submitted to Spain's parliament for fast-track approval by the end of this month, would allow government agencies to better monitor financing channels, introduce funding of terrorism into the penal code, and keep closer tabs on terror suspects.
The fast-track plans have emerged alongside several existent EU proposals that would require member states to share data in the fight against extremism. In October, the European Parliament blocked a push for the retention of flight passenger data to track the movements of terror suspects following concerns over privacy. But on Wednesday, European President Donald Tusk pressed his colleagues to revise their opinion on the proposal to avoid ending up with a patchwork of 28 national systems riddled with inconsistencies.
France's Falque-Pierrotin noted on Wednesday a national passenger record system due to be put in place by France later this year included a two-year limit on holding data. The current European proposal would store passenger records for five years.
EU foreign ministers and the Arab League’s secretary general on Monday preceded Tusk’s push by announcing a plan to share intelligence between the union and Egypt, Turkey, the Gulf and North Africa.
Enhanced collaboration on data sharing and surveillance may deter people from traveling to Syria, but the moves raise larger concerns, according to Magnus Ranstorp, who studies terrorism at the Swedish National Defense College. He said efforts to work with radicalized youth returning from Syrian battlefields and strengthening ties with Islamic leaders in Western Europe are key policies to decrease potential extremists' threat to public safety.
“How do we work with the community? There is a big weakness in just using repression.”
Valls’ proposal on Wednesday included plans to deploy dozens of extra Muslim chaplains who are to work with potential extremists in France's overcrowded jails. The Spanish law would also make efforts to fully recognize Spain’s Muslim community, estimated at 1.7 million, by training civil servants, social workers and teachers — "best practices," Brown said, "that would be good ideas to share as opposed to the blanket sharing of data."
While the radicalization of some Muslim youth is a pan-European phenomenon, the contexts within which they might decide to leave their communities and join extremist groups are very different, Brown added. Factors such as countries’ foreign policy, colonial past, participation in wars and relations with local Muslim groups each influence their potential recruitment and nuance the need for blanket data sharing, she said.
“Although there is a common Islamist narrative that you can see, the local conditions are different,” said Brown. “That makes the need for [data] cooperation slightly less than perhaps is being emphasized at the moment."
With wire services. Alfonso Serrano contributed reporting.