Intelligence failures, in France and abroad, led to the failure to foil attacks in Paris last year by Islamic radicals that killed 147 people, while rival units of security forces trapped by rules and stepping on each other’s feet made the situation worse during the attacks, the head of an investigating commission of lawmakers concluded Tuesday.
Cases in point: the only surviving attacker from the Nov. 13 attacks on a Paris stadium, music hall and restaurants, Saleh Abdeslam, should not have been able to escape into hiding in Belgium, where he was on the radar. And the man thought to have played a top role in the attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was a known radical who slipped across European borders, said Georges Fenech, president of the commission.
The two brothers who massacred the newsroom of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 and the man who took hostages and killed at a kosher grocery also were known to intelligence officials.
“Our intelligence services have failed,” Fenech said at a news conference called to present proposals growing out of the nearly six-month investigation.
“All, I say all of them, the attackers of the Bataclan [music hall], those of Charlie Hebdo, those of the Hyper-Kosher [store] … and others were all on the radar of our services.”
Going further, he said, “We could have avoided the attack of the Bataclan if there had not been these failures.”
The commission unraveled the trail of each radical in its mission to decipher the means at France’s disposal to fight violent extremism, and concluded that the country, and other European nations, notably Belgium, came up short.
It made 40 proposals, notably calling for a national counterterrorism agency like that created in the U.S. after the Sept. 11 attacks. Others ranged from ways to deal more effectively with victims to preventing those convicted of terror-linked crimes from receiving a reduction of their sentences and creating a special unit within Europol, the European police, working non-stop to record “hits” of potential extremists from member states.
The commission, which took testimony from 190 people and traveled to a half-dozen countries, also proposed seeking a more secure Turkish-Syrian border since French and other European youths use Turkey as a pathway to the Islamic State group’s areas in Syria. They also proposed more Europol agents at “hotspots” in Greece, to better manage the migrant flux.
The commission visited the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, and “we are convinced of the need to create the equivalent of [this] and what the British also do with MI5,” Fenech said. “The American NCTC, it’s 1,200 agents. Our coordinator under the [French] president, it’s eight agents.”
Critical voices were immediately raised, notably from Stephane Gicquel, a leading spokesman for victims.
“We don’t see how these proposals will be put into place, who will decide, in what time period,” Gicquel said after the news conference outlining the report, to be published July 12. He said he fears they will become just “vain wishes when today it is time to act and announce a very clear plan of action.”
The commission recommends only a follow-up information mission.
The work of the commission has filled in many blanks about the murderous attacks.
Investigators found that intelligence was not the only failure. Rivalry and rules stymied various police and military units who arrived at the scene of the November Paris attacks.
At the Bataclan concert hall, where deaths were the highest, the police unit that arrived first asked soldiers from Operation Sentinel to lend them their Famas assault rifles — and the soldiers refused. The soldiers were under orders not to part with their weapons, though they had no orders to shoot.
Operation Sentinel — 10,000 soldiers on an anti-terror watch — was started after the January 2015 attacks on Paris’ satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and reinforced after the Nov. 13 assaults.
The crack police intervention force RAID arrived in the midst of the melee, when a police unit was already inside the Bataclan, but was not put in command of the situation. The second crack intervention force, the GIGN, was never called in.
“There’s nothing worse than having three intervention forces walking on each other’s feet,” said Sebastien Pietrasanta, a Socialist who presented the report. He noted each unit has different operational approaches.
Not all the failures were France’s fault.
Abdeslam — stopped at the French-Belgian border the morning after the attacks in a car sent to fetch him — was detained, questioned then allowed to continue to Brussels where he lived because the Belgians had failed to add him to the European bank of radicalized individuals. They got back to the French once he was gone. Abdeslam is now being held in a French prison facing multiple charges.
Abaaoud, a Belgian regarded by some as the attack’s mastermind, was a known quantity in Belgium and was detected in Greece in January 2015. With better cooperation with both Belgium and Greece, “we would have arrested Abaaoud,” Fenech said.
Coincidentally on Tuesday a Belgian court sentenced the leaders of an extremist cell linked to the attacks in Paris to up to 16 years in prison. The cell was dismantled in a deadly raid just a week after the first wave of attacks in France.
Belgian authorities say the suspects were directed from afar by Abaaoud — who was hunted down by French police and killed days after the November attacks.
The French commission leaders stressed that there was no attempt to point fingers in the report, but to study what happened and move to solve problems. Still, “it’s easy to rewrite a story when you know the end,” Pietrasanta said.