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How France Can Fix Its Homegrown Terror Problem

The man who allegedly attacked a factory outside of Lyon had been on a security watch list. So why weren't French authorities able to stop him?

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The list of names in the French hall of shame just keeps growing. There’s “Toulouse gunman” Mohamed Merah, “Paris kosher store attacker” Amedy Coulibaly, “Charlie Hebdo assailants” Cherif and Said Kouachi, and now there might well be “gas factory decapitator” Yassin Sahli — these are names known across France and, indeed, the world today.

But these names were known to French security services years before they gained national and international notoriety. And an argument could be made that if surveillance systems hadn’t failed, these young Frenchmen would never have gotten the chance to make the headlines.

It’s still too early to discuss the motivations or goals that propelled Sahli, the main suspect in the June 26 attack on a gas factory near the southeastern French city of Lyon in which a 54-year-old man was decapitated, to allegedly commit an act of terrorism. Unlike Merah, Coulibaly, and the Kouachi brothers, who were killed in encounters with French security officials in the aftermath of their acts, Sahli was arrested and is currently in police custody. In the days and weeks to come, the Paris prosecutor’s office will likely release more details of the grisly attack, including how a 35-year-old truck driver allegedly killed his boss and why the victim’s body was inscribed with Arabic text while his decapitated head was put up on the factory fence. 

Hours after the incident — which French President Francois Hollande said “bears the hallmarks of a terrorist attack” — Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced that Sahli had been put on a watch list in 2006 for suspected radicalization, but his entry was not renewed in 2008. Investigators are likely to examine why the young man from the Lyon area with a history of radicalization but no criminal record was taken off the watch list. In an interview with French TV station FRANCE 24, Roland Jacquard of the International Observatory of Terrorism noted that Sahli got on the watch list because he attended a “very radical” mosque and prayer center in the Villeurbanne area of Lyon. However, in 2008, Jacquard said that the young man fell “completely off the radar.”

Why are these young men, who were identified as radicalized enough to be potentially dangerous, falling off officials’ radar?

The Toulouse gunman and the Charlie Hebdo attackers were all on the law enforcement radar before they dropped off and were able to commit their attacks. Merah, who killed 7 people in 2012, was a petty criminal of Algerian descent whose family history of radicalization was well known to French security officials. Merah’s classic pattern of radicalization included a prison stint followed by a trip to the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Coulibaly, who attacked a kosher store on Jan. 9, served time for a robbery in Fleury-Mérogis Prison, a cradle of radicalization, where he met the Kouachi brothers who went on to kill 11 people — including some of France’s best-known cartoonists — at the Charlie Hebdo offices on Jan. 7.

The June 26 attack came just over a month after the French National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, overwhelmingly approved a tough anti-terror bill granting authorities sweeping surveillance powers. The measure was drawn up last year, but was rushed through parliament following the Charlie Hebdo attacks. While critics of the bill’s civil rights infringement have called it “the French Patriot Act,” there is overwhelming support across the country for tough counter-terror and surveillance measures.

Since a wave of terrorist bombings hit France during the 1980s Algerian “sale guerre” –or dirty war — the country has continuously expanded the legal power of investigators and magistrates to adopt tough counter-terror measures, including sweeping surveillance initiatives and the ability to hold suspects for long periods without charges. Indeed, France today has an arsenal of anti-terror laws and a penchant for passing tougher new measures and tightening old ones. The latest 2015 anti-terror bill criminalizes the intent to commit acts of terror calls for travel bans and confiscating passports and ID cards in addition to harsh sentences for possession of dangerous substances and consulting terrorist websites. A 2012 cyber jihad law — which was passed in response to Merah’s Toulouse area attacks — has been tightened even though the measure got off to a slow start, resulting in relatively few prosecutions. Those cases that were brought to trial resulted in low conviction rates as judges and prosecutors attempted to apply the law without treading into freedom of expression violations.

The grisly nature of the June 26 attack will likely compel politicians and parliamentarians to push for even tougher legislative measures. But that’s a political sideshow that won’t fix the problem. France doesn’t need new legal measures. It needs more intelligence officials and analysts to ensure the current counter-terror systems work and are updated and thoroughly monitored so that known, potentially dangerous radicalized men and women don’t slip off radars.

The bigger problem in France however is that the new anti-terror measures are focused on the Islamic State (IS) narrative of battle-hardened French jihadists returning from the Syria-Iraq conflict to wreck havoc at home. But as of this moment, there is no evidence so far that suggests Sahli made his way to the IS badlands of Syria or Iraq — neither did Coulibaly or the Kouachi brothers. The only case of IS blowback in Europe so far has been Mehdi Nemmouche, a French national of Algerian origin who has been charged with attacking the Brussels Jewish Museum in May 2014. Under the new anti-jihad measures — which include a jihad alert hotline and website — Sahli would have been flagged if he was trying to make his way to the jihadist battlefields of Syria and Iraq. The adrenalin-pumped kids who post photographs on social media sites of themselves waving Kalashnikovs in the so-called caliphate or are posing queries on how to reach “the caliphate” are the obvious suspects. The real challenge France’s security apparatus faces is how to ensure the network of identified radicalized men and women — the ones not traveling or showing off about traveling to Syria — are regularly monitored.

France does not need more restrictive laws written by politicians obsessed with the “IS caliphate” threat to Europe. The true threat is in our midst; they are the quiet ones staying off the radar, the lone wolves who have slipped through surveillance cracks. The solutions, alas, are a lot less sexy than tough anti-terror talk. The solution is in bolstering the work already being done by the men and women already working in France’s law enforcement and reinforcing their numbers, so that known figures don’t fall off radars.

PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images

 Twitter: @leelajacinto

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