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France Isn’t Ready to Prevent More Terror Attacks

January 9, 2015

By Carol Matlack

Two days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the French on Friday faced the frightening realization that other armed terrorists are on the loose in their midst. Two hostage standoffs ended with police killing three suspects, including two suspected in this week’s Charlie Hebdo attack, and the death of four civilians. Shortly after, a member of al-Qaeda in Yemen took credit for the Hebdo attack.

“This is the worst attack in France in 50 years,” President François Hollande said. “We will do everything to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”

But this week’s events have made clear that France—and many of its European neighbors—lack some basic tools for controlling terrorist threats within their borders.

Counterterrorist experts have warned for months that Europe was at high risk of attack. More than 3,000 European Union nationals have trained and fought with jihadis in Syria and elsewhere, according to Gilles de Kerchove, the EU’s counterterrorism coordinator. Hundreds now are returning home—including, it seems, Saïd Kouachi, who according to U.S. and French authorities spent time training in Yemen with al-Qaeda.

The risk for France was exceptionally high, because the country has Europe’s biggest Muslim population, about 5 million, and accounts for about 1,000 of the 3,000 Europeans who have waged jihad abroad. Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said last November that the number of French fighters had doubled since the start of the year. Bernard Squarcini, the country’s former domestic intelligence chief, told France 2 television on Thursday that some 5,000 French residents had “drawn attention” from security services for possible jihadi activity.

Last fall, the French Parliament enacted legislation to impose a travel ban on people suspected of planning terrorist activity, and to block websites that encourage or teach people to carry out attacks.

But the law came too late to prevent Kouachi from traveling to Yemen—and it seems unlikely he was kept under close watch when he returned.

French Interior Minister Manuel Valls said brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi were “known to the security services and were being followed.” Yet, according Squarcini and other experts, keeping a single individual under 24-hour surveillance requires a team of 20 to 30 people to gather and analyze information—daunting figures, considering the large number of potential jihadi suspects.

Still another problem is that Europe, unlike the U.S., doesn’t collect information on airline passengers that would enable it to maintain a no-fly list for suspected jihadis. U.S. and French authorities have confirmed that the Kouachi brothers were on the U.S. no-fly list, barring them from traveling to the U.S. or through U.S. airspace. But they faced no such restriction on flights in Europe.

The EU proposed legislation more than three years ago to start collecting passenger information. But the measure has stalled in the European Parliament because of privacy-rights objections. European interior ministers “are very worried,” counterterrorism coordinator de Kerchove told France 24 television in an interview last month. “They see this as probably their only tool to detect suspicious travel.”

Britain has its own no-fly list, and it plans to bar returning jihadis from reentering the country for at least two years unless they agree to strict monitoring upon their return.