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Counterterrorism in France: Recent Attacks and the Vigipirate system

Counterterrorism in France: Recent Attacks and the Vigipirate system

July 9, 2015
Christopher Griffin
Christopher Griffin Non-Resident Fellow Strategic Studies and Counterinsurgency

On 26 June, France was again hit by a terrorist attack. A French citizen, Yassin Salhi, decapitated his boss and then attempted a suicide attack by using a car to blow up a factory in Saint-Quentin-Fallavier, east of Lyon. Salhi was arrested immediately after the failure to destroy the factory, and now is in French custody. There are many questions that remain about the attack, in particular whether it was commanded by a terrorist organization outside of France. French newspapers as well as terrorism analysts pointed the finger immediately at Daesh, for three reasons:

  • The use of decapitation as a method – identified in error as a way of execution associated solely with Daesh.[1]
  • The near-simultaneous attacks in Tunisia and Kuwait, where Daesh claimed responsibility in both cases.
  • The discovery of two flags that resembled the those of Daesh at the attack site.

Any link between the three attacks has yet to be proven, but the fact that they happened on the same day is likely not a coincidence. The French government appears convinced that Salhi’s attack was at least in some way connected with Daesh, and sent the issue to the antiterrorist section of France’s judicial system, which has taken charge of the investigation. The French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, even went so far as to state after the attack that France was engaged in a ‘war for civilization’ in the fight against terrorism. Valls was subsequently accused by a number of politicians of appropriating American neoconservative concepts for his speech.

The suspect, Salhi, has, surprisingly, made claims to the effect that he was not in fact carrying out a terrorist operation, but instead getting revenge on his boss for a series of workplace disputes. The French government clearly does not believe Salhi’s side of the story. Three further developments, since Salhi’s arrest, call the suspect’s version into question. The French Republic’s Prosecutor for Paris, François Molins, told journalists that the attempt to blow up the American-owned Air Products factory ‘looked like a martyr operation’. Molins also said that Salhi took a selfie of himself holding the decapitated head, which was sent to a contact in Daesh in Syria. Salhi’s contact then asked ‘for authorization from the Islamic State to distribute the photos’. Most surprisingly of all, and damaging for the credibility of the French counterterrorist (CT) system, it was revealed quickly that Salhi had been under intermittent surveillance since 2004 for his contacts with ‘radicals’. There was clearly an intelligence failure. As we will see below, however, there are likely structural reasons for this failure, in particular the continual deficiencies in manpower in France’s CT programs.

France responded to the 26 June attack by increasing the alert level of its Vigipirate CT system that deploys military and police personnel to protect sites within metropolitan France. As of 2014, there are only two levels of alert, the ‘normal’ alert level, in which French military forces can be reinforced locally to protect a certain target or prevent an attack, and ‘terrorist attack alert’.[2] Vigipirate had already been raised to the highest level in the Parisian region following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, which allowed for the deployment of 10,500 additional soldiers in France. After the attack near Lyon, the French government placed the entire Rhône-Alpes region of southeastern France on terrorist attack alert for three days. As it is a heavily industrialized region, and the attack was against a factory, the measure concentrated on protecting 158 SEVESO-classified sites, which are industrial installations that pose potential security risks. The plan also included a host of other measures, including increasing the surveillance of train stations, airports and other public buildings, especially in the large cities of the region (Lyon, Grenoble, Saint-Etienne). While some of the task is taken up by the army, a large part of the operations come under the responsibility of the responsibility of the police and the gendarmerie (itself a branch of the French armed forces).

Vigipirate is not a new program, and in fact is the result of French CT measures developed in the late 1970s. The first activation of the updated program occurred in 1991 during the Gulf War, but it was really in 1995 that it came fully on line, in reaction to a series of attacks by the Algerian Groupe Islamique Armée (GIA) in France.[3] France was only placed on the highest alert, ‘scarlet’, once during the subsequent 20 years, in the Mohammed Merah situation in 2012. Merah killed seven people in several terrorist attacks, including children in front of a Jewish school in Toulouse. The alert covered three departments of southwestern France. Under the previous system, ‘Scarlet’ was the highest level of alert possible before the French president can claim total emergency powers under Article 16 of the constitution.

The reform of Vigipirate at the beginning of 2014 was in response to what the Defense Ministry called ‘a high-level terrorist threat that will remain a threat for some time’. Along with changing the alert levels, it brought more local government actors into the system to better deal with complex attacks. The French public regularly sees the Vigipirate plan in action in daily life, as armed soldiers patrol train stations, airports and other public places. It can also be extended to the protection of schools and places of worship.

The French Defense Ministry’s reform of Vigipirate came in a period of increased threat to the country. On 22 September 2014, a spokesman for Daesh called on its members to target French people after French airstrikes in Iraq. The threats were repeated in February and in March 2015. In the attacks in January 2015, however, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for the assassinations at Charlie Hebdo, while Amedy Coulibaly claimed to be acting as part of Daesh in the attack on the Hyper Cacher supermarket. Direct coordination between the two groups is unlikely, despite the evidence of links between the perpetrators of both attacks, given the bitter rivalry between Al Qaeda and Daesh.

As mentioned above, following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, French forces went onto high alert. More than ten thousand soldiers were deployed with no time limit for the end of operations. At the same time, there was clear public support for the government to make a greater effort in counterterrorism, borne out by the country-wide demonstrations for the liberty of expression following the attacks. There have been some successes from the increased presence of French soldiers in metropolitan and the increased resources to fight terrorism. Most notable was the halting of a planned attack by Sid Ahmed Ghlam against a church in Villejuif south of Paris in April, whose intentions were, unfortunately, not discovered until after an innocent bystander had been killed by the suspect. The police found documents regarding both Al Qaeda and Daesh belonging to Ghlam, adding to the confusion regarding the sources of attacks against French interests.

Vigipirate, despite some successes, has run into a serious problem, that of manpower. The French armed forces underwent significant cuts under Nicolas Sarkozy’s administration. Hollande, however, began to consider halting defense restructuring in January, and stated his intention to save 7,500 military jobs that had been slated for elimination. He also indicated that he wanted 7,000 soldiers involved in ‘normal’ Vigipirate operations instead of the 1,000 deployed on average before the Charlie Hebdo attacks. The dilemma is that the French Army and police forces have been unable to maintain the forces necessary to keep the Vigipirate alert forces fully manned since January. The total forces, when police and gendarmes are included, make up close to 20,000, many of which are tasked to protect places of worship. This has produced significant strains in the French security system, and in April, a number of the Compagnies républicaines de sécurités (CRS) began to take massed sick leave to protest. The CRS is part of the police, but this movement, which the French government has been unable to stop, despite efforts at redeployment, shows that there is a serious disconnect between the means and the ends of Vigipirate.

If France truly wants to protect itself from attacks like that on Charlie Hebdo or the one that occurred on 26 June, it needs to recruit more people and increase the budget for its CT programs. The French government cannot hope to deploy 20,000 people indefinitely on internal missions to protect the country and expect them to be effective 24/7 when there are few reinforcements and little leave. The budget for CT operations also needs to be increased so as to have a greater likelihood of preventing attacks in metropolitan France in the face of the increased threat. While overseas operations were not a part of this essay, the same recommendation applies, in that the French military needs to be given more resources to carry out its myriad missions in Africa as well as fighting Daesh in Iraq and Syria.

The focus of this essay has been Vigipirate, but it is by no means the only aspect of the French CT system. French internal security services have undergone a number of reforms in recent years. The French equivalent of the American FBI is the Direction générale de la sécurité intérieure (DGSI), which is part of the Interior Ministry and was created in 2014 as the newest agency tasked with monitoring radicalization and individuals deemed to be a risk within France. It also monitors developments in terrorist groups abroad, which also falls under the responsibility of the Direction générale de la sécurité extérieure (DGSE). The DGSE roughly corresponds with the CIA, and is part of the Defense Ministry. While the DGSI has been recruiting personnel, the intelligence failure mentioned at the beginning of this essay was due at least in part to the insufficient means provided for the surveillance of Yassin Salhi. The problem again comes back to budget deficits and lack of personnel.

A 2015 counterterrorism law also aims at limiting radicalization as well as the departure of French citizens to join Daesh in Syria and Iraq. The law makes it illegal for French citizens to leave the country to fight in international terrorist organizations. Its most important provisions are aimed at giving intelligence services a greater legal basis for their surveillance of radicalized individuals within the country.

One of the most useful parts of the new law is that it will include measures to create 2,680 jobs in counterterrorism agencies and increase the CT budget by 425 million euros over the next three years. Will this be enough to prevent attacks like that of 26 June? If the French government wants to achieve its missions of protecting its citizens within France as well as fight terrorism abroad, it will have to continue to allocate more and more resources to increase its manpower and budget for the military and internal security services. In a period of economic downturn and uncertainty, however, this is proving difficult. France has only been able to mobilize a sufficient public and governmental consensus for increases in CT resources after suffering major attacks.

[1] The method has been wrongly depicted in the media as being practiced solely by Daesh. Pete Lentini and Muhammad Bakashmar go into detail about other instances of decapitation by jihadist groups long before the foundation of the Islamic State in their article ‘Jihadist Beheadings: A Convergence of Technology, Theology, and Teleology,’ Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 30 (2007), 303-325.

[2] The new levels replaced the older, more complicated system of ‘yellow, orange, red and scarlet’ alerts.

[3] On France’s campaign against the GIA in the 1990s, see the chapter by Jeremy Shapiro, ‘France and the GIA’, in Robert Art and Louise Richardson (eds.), Democracy and Counterterrorism: Lessons from the Past (Washingon DC: United States Institute of Peace, 2007), 133-166.

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