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Were the Paris attacks a French intelligence failure?

Analysis: The pool of ISIL supporters in France has grown beyond the surveillance capacity of any security service

Reports that France was warned by the United States and Iraq before Friday’s Paris attacks that an ISIL assault was imminent have prompted many to ask how security services could have missed the plot. Such incredulity was heightened by the fact that a number of those involved were on the radar of French authorities as radicals and potential threats — with at least one charged in a terrorism-related case.

Such a scenario might seem unthinkable in the U.S., but the reality is that neither France nor its European Union partners have the forces, assets, funding or legal provisions to take sweeping preventive measures — often based on sketchy intelligence — that the U.S. can. And fail-safe operational monitoring of the sheer number of potential threats on European soil, in the form of sympathizers with groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), many of whom have traveled to Syria and spent time with the group, is beyond the capacity of any security service.

That much was effectively acknowledged on Monday by French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who said in an interview with broadcaster RTL that France was aware that attacks were being plotted before Friday’s strikes and warned that others are likely being prepared.

“Truth, lucidity oblige us to say it — Terrorism has struck and may strike again in coming days, in the coming weeks,” he said as police sweeps across France and Belgium detained hundreds of people for questioning. “I don’t say that to scare people, [but] everyone must be fully conscious of this.”

Though virtually all European states have tightened laws in recent years to help security services battle terrorism — usually provoking varying degrees of protest from civil liberties advocates as they did — none have the sweeping powers of surveillance accorded to U.S. officials under the post-9/11 USA Patriot Act.

And the scale of the problem confronting EU member states is far larger, with roughly 6,000 Europeans having traveled to Syria to join armed groups — nearly 2,000 from France alone. Meanwhile, Europe is both geographically closer and more readily accessible to flows of ISIL operatives in and out of areas controlled by the group. And the ease with which these operatives can move among European nations and the different jurisdictions of various security services exacerbate the problem. Some of those blamed for Friday’s attacks, for example, appeared to have moved frequently between France and Belgium.

The emergence of ISIL, which has raised its flag over huge stretches of territory in Syria and Iraq that are relatively easily accessible from Turkey, has dramatically altered the challenge facing European security services whose primary problem was once Al-Qaeda. That’s because Osama bin Laden’s group preferred to operate from the shadows as a more professional elite force, whereas ISIL is far more accessible to young would-be radicals traveling from the West.

“There’s no reason for a French or European young person to go to Waziristan for training with Al-Qaeda. One hundred percent of those people are joining Islamic State in Syria or Iraq,” a senior French counterterrorism official said in an interview in September. The likelihood of France’s coming under attack by homegrown extremists was probably just a matter of time, he warned. “[ISIL] is the only game in town anymore. For all intents and purposes, Al-Qaeda as a military and terror entity has disappeared. It still has its leaders, its followers, even backers, but it’s essentially moribund.”

The official complained that France’s security services were struggling to meet the challenge before ISIL ranks began swelling — just as EU governments began embracing austerity. But even subsequent efforts to boost the financing of intelligence and police forces have hardly matched the spiking numbers of ISIL-allied radicals and the threat they pose.

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Last Tuesday, Britain announced it would increase intelligence staffing by 15 percent — or 1,900 officers — in response to the rising risk of attacks from its considerable contingent of citizens in Syria. But similar steps previously taken elsewhere in Europe have made, at best, a modest difference in the current security environment.

“The task we’ve been given, measured simply by the number of people we now need to keep tabs on, is so enormous in certain ways, it’s just become impossible,” the French official said. “You can’t watch everyone. We’re swamped.”

Suggestions in the media implying incompetence or error rather than the overwhelming of human capacities­ are particularly cruel for France’s counterterrorism forces, whose track record for the past two decades has been nearly spotless.

After a string of Paris bombings by members of Algeria’s Armed Fighting Group in 1995 and ’96, France’s security services halted dozens of planned strikes on French soil until the 2012 shooting spree of Al-Qaeda supporter Mohammed Merah in and around Toulouse.

But until the end of the 1990s, French officials often got little or no help from European and U.S. peers in battling the threat. Having not yet suffered a strike on their own turf or identified extremists in their midst, those allies did not understand the gravity of the threat, French officials said. They resisted French urgings to adopt laws that would allow the arrest of members at all levels of violent networks — the petty thieves who raise financing, document forgers allowing operatives to travel undetected, logistics helpers who obtain arms and explosives and planners of assaults.

Having been hard at work for two decades countering the threat of strikes like Friday’s, French security officials are resentful of any impugning of their competence in the wake of the Paris attacks. On the contrary, they note, Friday was an excruciating exception to France’s success until now in thwarting most assaults planned on its soil.

Friday seemed to confirm the maxim expressed in a 1984 statement from the Irish Republican Army directed at the British government after a failed attack on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. “Today we were unlucky,” the IRA said, “but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.”

That the French security system’s good fortune would eventually fail may have been inevitable in the face of the expanding threat. France will be hoping that Friday was a case of ISIL’s being lucky just once.

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