Terror in Europe

Terrorism, Why We Must Learn To Live With The Unacceptable

After last week's foiled Thalys train attack, citizens must get used to playing their part in the fight against the jihadist threat, a former French intelligence agent warns.

On the Paris Metro
On the Paris Metro
Yves Trotignon*


PARIS â€" Since the January attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, acts of terrorism that either took place or were thwarted in France have all matched the scenario that security agencies have most feared since the 2008 Mumbai attacks. In each case, one or several gunmen have been determined to kill as many people as possible for maximum political reaction, preferably in a setting that offers plenty of targets and closed spaces to prevent security forces from intervening.

This operational evolution, theorized 10 years ago by al-Qaeda ideologists and now used by ISIS, is an answer to the difficulties these terror organizations faced when they tried to recruit and develop complex networks in Western countries. It also comes at a particular time in history when jihadism attracts more and more people and manages to produce so many microcells that it's now fair to talk about a phenomenon with a potentially unprecedented reach.

Jihadist groups have decided to favor isolated acts, which they order, support or encourage through social media propaganda. We're fools if we think we can just erase their messaging from the Internet. And the methods that proved so efficient in the 1970s and 1980s against well-structured networks, and which were adapted to the rise of jihad in the early 1990s, are now largely ineffective.

The sheer number of suspects, the difficulty of assessing just how dangerous they are, the speed at which they decide to act â€" most often, alone â€" make it that much more difficult for security agencies. We've been stretched to our limits.

These limits are not, however, those that have been the focus of politicians and the media. A French law passed in June to boost intelligence capabilities and prevention efforts has given the impression that these agencies were blind, that they needed to be given more means to observe jihadist circles and improve security.

Knowing is not enough

The foiled attack on the Paris-bound Thalys train gives us a clearer diagnosis of the supposed blindness that's been described. The suspected gunman, Ayoub El-Khazzani, was "known to intelligence services." He isn't the first person flagged as a potential terrorist to execute an attack, whether in France or the rest of the world. Over the past few years, from Boston to London or Brussels to Toulouse, almost every jihadist involved in attacks against civilians was known to domestic and/or foreign intelligence services, and some of them had even been approached by authorities.

The fact that they had been identified, that they had sometimes been under surveillance, didn't prevent them from acting. Therefore, are intelligence and security services blind, or do they not understand what they see? Is it a matter of means or rather of internal organization and operation?

For example, should we be creating ever more coordination and command structures when the evidence clearly demonstrates that the priority should be to exploit in the most efficient way possible the intelligence we're already collecting? Shouldn't we make what already exists work better?

The apparent powerlessness of security services shouldn't be exaggerated, and it shouldn't lead to rushed decisions dictated by fear.

We're facing a threat of terrible complexity from thousands of potential terrorists, but it's not reasonable to demand infallibility from the intelligence community. We all know that's not possible. Can we protect ourselves from everybody and everything even as jihadists, either on a collective mission or acting as lone wolves, are able to carry out attacks anywhere in the country, in shopping centers or in public transportation? Is it really possible to secure absolutely everything, trains and railways, the metro and all the tunnels, the shopping centers, when the jihadists could just as well attack people in the street?

Here in France, we can hope that intelligence services will be able to improve thanks to the new legislation. But we can also fear that with their powers reinforced, jihadists will eventually adapt, making it even more difficult to catch them. What will we do then? Should we once again reinforce a system that's playing catch-up with the events? The passengers' reaction inside the Thalys train gives a first answer to that question.

Faced with this terrorist threat, which is real and yet shouldn't be overestimated, the priority should be resiliency. It should be encouraged, since we have to admit the impossibility of identifying all potential attacks and stopping all potential jihadists.

Citizens are right to expect permanent commitment and the highest efficiency from their intelligence and security agencies. But they must also take part in this fight by accepting the fact that terror is now part of their daily lives, and will continue to be for years. They must admit that running away from the threat will only give them an illusion of security.

This isn't resignation. It's a necessary realization of cruel realities.

*Yves Trotignon is a former agent at the French General Directorate for External Security (DGSE).

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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