Stunning French intelligence failures in Paris attacks

Parliamentary inquiry finds security agencies need a radical overhaul to fight jihadism

Nineteen months after the Charlie Hebdo attacks and eight months after the Bataclan massacre, a parliamentary commission of inquiry this week issued its report on both atrocities and urged a complete overhaul of France's intelligence services.

The 300-page report gives many examples of domestic and foreign intelligence failures.  "We're not pointing the finger, but noting objectively that we absolutely must reconsider everything," Georges Fenech, the conservative deputy in the National Assembly who presided over the bi-partisan commission, told Le Monde.

“We’re working with a set-up from the 1980s, when terrorism was not what it is today.”

Surveillance of Samy Amimour, one of three gunmen equipped with suicide belts who attacked the Bataclan music hall, was allowed to lapse.

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Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who planned the November 13th, 2015, attacks was known to be in Athens, yet Belgian authorities failed to notify the Greek government before they assaulted the cell he controlled in Verviers, Belgium, in January 2015, so Abaaoud escaped.

Two of the most stunning lapses concern the flight of Salah Abdeslam, the jihadist who survived the November 13th massacre that killed 130 people.

The glove compartment of the Volkswagen Polo abandoned in front of the Bataclan held a contract from a Belgian car rental agency in Abdeslam’s name. The car was located by police at 10pm on the Friday night of the attack.

The policeman who checked its contents at 2am mentioned “the glove compartment holds various papers corresponding to the vehicle”. Yet the contract in Abdeslam’s name was not read until Saturday afternoon. By then, the suspected terrorist had been allowed through a gendarmerie checkpoint in the border town of Cambrai. The Cambrai gendarmes checked the identity of Abdeslam and the men who had driven to Paris to fetch him.

They found Abdeslam’s name on the Schengen SIS 2 list but for past criminal offences, not as a suspected jihadist.

By the time Belgian officials called back the border post to say the classification was wrong, and Abdeslam was in fact a “radicalised candidate for jihad in Syria”, he was an hour farther down the motorway to Brussels.

Abdeslam was able to hide for four months.  He was arrested on March 18th in Molenbeek, the Brussels neighbourhood where he grew up, and extradited to France on April 27th.  Mohamed Amri and Hamza Attou, who drove to Paris to fetch him, were extradited to France over the past two weeks, along with Ali Oulkadi, who is accused of transporting Abdeslam after his return to Brussels.

In other new developments, three leaders of the Verviers cell were sentenced this week to 16 years in prison by a Brussels court. The Paris criminal court sentenced six jihadist sympathisers from the “Strasbourg network” to between six and nine years.

Syrian experience

Karim Mohamed-Aggad, the brother of one of the Bataclan bombers, received the longest sentence, for having spent four months in

Syria

.   All were imprisoned in 2014, before the attacks, but were found to have maintained contacts with Islamic State (Isis).

Their mocking attitude in court did not help their case.

The parliamentary commission reported that it “had the greatest difficulty obtaining the number of individuals followed by different agencies involved in the anti-terrorist struggle” because “there is no consolidated list”. A list “for preventing terrorist radicalisation” contains 13,000 names, but it is available only to the ministry of the interior and not to other services, including the external intelligence agency DGSE.

The commission made 39 recommendations, including the creation of a single national anti-terrorist agency similar to the one founded in the US after 9/11.  It also wants to merge two agencies known by the acronyms SCRT and SDAO, and two units meant to co-ordinate France’s war on terrorism, the EMOPT and the UCLAT.

Interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve yesterday objected to these proposals to avoid "subjecting the intelligence service to endless reforms, without substantial gains in efficiency".

Mr Cazeneuve said: “The services have been repeatedly restructured in recent months to adapt their methods to a particularly high threat which takes many forms.”

The commission also proposed specialised  training in sharp-shooting, the extraction of hostages and the treatment of war wounds from assault weapons used by the jihadists.