PARIS — 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 — most often, alone — 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.
Tourists and security personnel in front of a Thalys train at the Brussels Midi station on Aug. 23 — Photo: Zhou Lei/Xinhua/ZUMA
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).