From France to the U.S. terrorists 'known to authorities' carry out deadly attacks
In recent years, a troubling pattern has emerged in the wake of terrorist attacks, reports that national intelligence or security forces had the suspected terrorist under surveillance, or in some cases in custody, but let that individual go, only to find that person commit a horrible atrocity.
According to reports, the two suspects in the Thursday attack against French police on the Champs-Elysees were known to French anti-terrorism authorities. The suspected gunman, 39-year-old French national Karim Cheurfi had been released from prison last year for an earlier attempt in 2001 to shoot police after being caught in a stolen car. On Thursday he succeeded in killing one officer and injuring two others before being shot dead.
On Friday, Paris Prosecutor François Molins said that while Cheurfi had been known to police, he showed "no sign" of radicalization. A second suspect is being sought by authorities based on information from Belgian security services.
French President Francois Hollande was quick to confirm the attack was "terrorism-related." France has been under a state of emergency ever since the deadly Islamic State (ISIS) terror attack on the Bataclan nightclub in November 2015. Leading up to a very heated election on Monday, French security forces are in a heightened state of alert.
Thursday's shooting was not the first time an individual who was on the radar of French authorities apparently slipped through the cracks and was able to carry out a brutal attack. In just the last two years, French anti-terrorism authorities acknowledged that they knew about or had investigated the individuals who successfully carried out three major incidents.
The Bastille Day truck attack in Nice was carried out by Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, an Islamist extremist known to police for relatively low-level crimes including alleged domestic abuse, assault and weapons possession, but no clear terrorism ties. That attack resulted in 86 casualties.
The November 2015 attacks in Paris that claimed a total of 130 lives involved a small network of ISIS-linked terrorist in France and Belgium. Of the 11 individuals involved, several were known to authorities. The suspected mastermind of the deadly series attacks was Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian jihadist who was considered one of the most active ISIS operators in Syria.
When 12 people were killed at the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine, all three of the terrorists had been under close watch. Cherif and Said Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly were under police surveillance for three years, but eventually dropped in the summer of 2014 only months before the deadly January 2015 attack.
Combined with the resources and manpower needed to keep any one terror suspect under surveillance, is the fact that France's terror watch-list is overflowing. In 2016, it was estimated that more than 15,000 suspected Islamist radicals were on France's so-called "S-list," a number has tripled in just the past two years.
The notion of keeping a close watch on every suspect on that list, given the other demands on authorities, is an impossibility. But it doesn't change the haunting sense among the public that perhaps something could have been done to prevent an attack, maybe some critical warning sign was missed.
According to Colin P. Clarke a political scientist and terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation, France is facing an overwhelming security challenge. "If you think about the number of potential suspects versus the manpower the authorities have to actually monitor and surveil these people versus the cost, you can see why a lot of these people eventually drop off the radar," he explained.
As was the case with the Charlie Hebdo terrorists who were dropped off the terrorist watch list, authorities must decide "how long do you keep a tail on them," especially if they are not actively involved in suspicious activities.
Even after France beefed up its security services, anti-terrorism operatives and broadened surveillance powers in the aftermath of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack, reports suggest that the country is still struggling to meet demand. The French Centre for the Analysis of Terrorism has determined that it takes as many as 20 agents per suspect to conduct 24-hour surveillance.
In recent years, France has also been one of the top European exporters of foreign fighters to ISIS strongholds in Iraq and Syria. One estimate by the Associated Press revealed that as many as 1,600 French nationals have left their country to join the fight in the Middle East. Those staggering numbers immediately raise the concern over returning foreign fighters, particularly as the international coalition against ISIS deprives the group of territory it previously held in Syria and Iraq.
Clarke warned against the common habit of "Monday morning quarterbacking" when authorities are unable to preempt an attack. "It's easy to heap scorn on intelligence and law enforcement and ask why didn't you do anything, you had these people under surveillance, but it's far more complicated in practice," he advised.
It has often been said of national intelligence and counterterrorism services that they need to get it right 100 percent of the time, terrorists only have to be right once.
"We rarely talk about it," Clarke said but most attacks are prevented. "When authorities don't [stop an attack], that's when the finger pointing starts, because somebody has got to take the blame."
Earlier this week, French authorities coordinating with British and French intelligence were able to thwart an "imminent" election day attack. Two men were arrested in Marseilles in possession of explosives, guns, and an ISIS flag and propaganda material.
William Brainiff, executive director of the University of Maryland National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), emphasized that the recent cases of individuals who fell through the cracks are indicative of the challenges of the counterterrorism mission.
"[I]dentifying when someone may have crossed a criminal threshold is not a simple task," he said. "We also know from our data that radicalization to violence is a process that unfolds over time — sometimes months and sometimes years."
That is a challenge not only facing French authorities, but Americans as well. In just the past year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) came under tough public scrutiny when it failed to prevent three high-profile terrorist attacks despite previous knowledge of the suspects.
The attacker at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Omar Mateen was probed for possible terror ties, but still allowed to purchase an assault weapon which he used in the deadly June 2016 attack. The suspect in the New York, New Jersey subway bombing last September, Ahmad Rahimi, had a number of suspicious travel activities that might have raised red flags. And the Fort Lauderdale airport shooter, Esteban Santiago, had walked into an FBI field office in Alaska only two months before he shot and killed five people in January.
Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported that the FBI began an internal audit to ensure it was following all the correct procedures when receiving terrorism-related tips and leads. The agency-wide review will cover three years worth of leads and cover FBI "assessments," the lowest level, least intrusive and most elementary stage of a terror-related inquiry, to ensure that the agency is not allowing bad actors to seep through the cracks.
There is only so much the FBI can do in terms of keeping its eye on people who may be flagged in an initial probe, let out of sight due to a lack of evidence, but go on to commit serious crimes.
"This reality is in tension with our Constitutional protections, which limit the ability of the FBI to engage in long-term and invasive investigations without sufficient cause," Brainiff emphasized.
The FBI "assessments" are "a compromise between liberty and security" he continued. "These 'snapshots' do not always allow the FBI to observe what we know is really a process, and so any given snapshot runs the risk of missing the revealing moments of an individual's radicalization process."
Colin Clarke said that the FBI review is an important step for the agency, especially as they deal with a massive counterterrorism case load that includes investigating terror suspects in all 50 states.
"It's reassuring to me that they're doing something like this," he said. "It's figuring out what red flags were missed and why, what institutional biases blind spots did we overlook. It's really about lessons learned and best practices, which is really a smart thing to do."
He added that it would be surprising if a similar review was not taking place in Europe, especially given the recent attacks by known entities in Paris and Brussels.
The United States continues the demanding task of strengthening counterterrorism measures and improving communication between intelligence and law enforcement resources across all levels of the government, but for Europe the challenges are even greater.
With the rise of nationalist sentiments across Europe, politicians, including the popular French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, are arguing for greater interior security and harder borders. The trend is worrying, Clarke said. "The more you throw up walls, those walls are not just physical, they extend to information sharing and cooperation between intelligence agencies. So that's a big issue I'm concerned about in Europe in particular."