Could the Carnage in Nice Reshape France’s Spy Agencies?
French spies have faced persistent calls for reform since they failed to prevent the multiple terror strikes in Paris. The Nice attack may finally force the issue.
Earlier this month, a French parliamentary report delivered a sobering assessment of the country’s intelligence agencies: They had failed to collect or analyze information that could have helped prevent the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 and the coordinated bombings that struck Paris in November.
That report called for a major overhaul of the country’s six intelligence agencies, and with dozens dead from a terror attack on a seaside boulevard in Nice, France is once more asking how authorities who have been handed wide-ranging powers in the aftermath of last year’s attacks failed to prevent yet another massacre.
On Thursday, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a 31-year-old French national of Tunisian descent, plowed a 19-ton truck through a crowd in Nice gathered to watch the Bastille Day fireworks, killing 84 and injuring more than 200 others, including 52 with critical wounds. The dead included at least two Americans and 10 children.
French law enforcement authorities were aware of Bouhlel, who had amassed a minor criminal record. Earlier this year he had received a six-month suspended sentence for assault, but he was not on any terror watch lists and he had not landed on the radar of French intelligence, prosecutor François Molins said Friday.
It remains unclear what motivated Bouhlel to kill or whether he had connections to Islamist extremists. French officials said Friday that they are carrying out a wide-ranging investigation into whether he had links to foreign terror groups or assistance from other militants within France. Molins said the attack bears similarities to those called for by Islamic State propagandists, but no group had claimed credit for the attack as of Friday afternoon.
With the news of the attack, French President François Hollande swiftly announced that his nation’s emergency law, which hands police wide-ranging powers and was first announced after attacks in Paris in November, would be extended by an additional three months. But the events in Nice highlight what security experts have long pointed out: No legislation or emergency measure, no matter how severe, is enough to guarantee perfect security.
“The state of emergency allows police forces to act swiftly and can help disrupt networks before they strike — or strike again,” said Olivier Decottignies, a French diplomat in residence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But there is no panacea.”
After the bloodshed in Nice, Prime Minister Manuel Valls vowed that France would not “give in to the terrorist threat.” But he added that “times have changed, and France is going to have to live with terrorism.”
French constitutional scholars argue that France cannot continue to rely on extreme legal measures to combat terrorism. “Prolonging the state of emergency is certainly necessary, but from another perspective, when the state of emergency is prolonged for too long, the level of vigilance weakens,” said Bertrand Mathieu, a law professor at the Sorbonne. “It is absolutely necessary that the state of emergency is eventually lifted one day, even if the threat of terrorists has not died down.”
The French Parliament had voted to extend the state of emergency in May amid security fears for two major sporting events. Officials had been worried about the threat posed to large crowds gathering to watch the Euro 2016 soccer competition, which concluded on July 10, and the Tour de France, which is underway.
The director of the country’s domestic intelligence service, Patrick Calvar, told members of Parliament in May that the Islamic State was “planning new attacks” and that France could be assaulted by multiple bombings in areas with crowds. France is “clearly the most threatened country,” Calvar said, referring to threats from both the Islamic State and al Qaeda.
With about 5,000 European residents believed to have at some point joined the Islamic State in Syria, the group can rely on a substantial reservoir of potential operatives it could send into France as well as homegrown radicals already living there, Decottignies said.
“A number of attacks have been foiled, but for security agencies, it is like playing ping-pong with too many balls in the air,” he said.
To improve France’s ability to combat the Islamic State and other terror groups, this month’s nonpartisan report proposed creating a single national agency to fuse intelligence — similar to the National Counterterrorism Center in the United States that was set up after the 9/11 attacks. It also urged establishing a common database for terrorist threats and strengthening the monitoring of prisons where radicalization of inmates has emerged as a growing danger.
Prison officials reportedly had identified Amedy Coulibaly, who killed four people at a kosher supermarket in Paris in January 2015 before being shot dead by the police, as an Islamist extremist but failed to pass on the information to intelligence services.
The last reorganization of the intelligence services came in 2008, when then-President Nicolas Sarkozy merged the former counterintelligence agency with the domestic intelligence agency, the Renseignements Généraux. But those reforms produced mixed results, experts say.
Philippe Hayez, a former official with the DGSE, the French counterpart to the CIA, said French intelligence agencies need more of a continuous reform process than a “big bang.” And there is widespread agreement that the government’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies need more data about terror suspects and to share the data across departments.
The parliamentary report also said more information sharing among European governments was crucial and proposed granting Europol — the law enforcement agency for the EU — and Frontex — the EU’s border-control agency — full access to the Schengen Information System, a database for missing or wanted suspects.
Belgian authorities failed to notify France about suspicions linked to Salah Abdeslam, who took part in the November attacks in Paris that left 130 dead. Guards on the France-Belgium border stopped Abdeslam as he made his way back to Belgium but let him pass, as they were unaware of his extremist associations. Abdeslam was later arrested in Belgium and extradited to France in April.
Staff writer Siobhán O’Grady contributed reporting to this article.
Photo credit: DAVID RAMOS/Getty Images
Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce