Europe missed many ‘red flags’

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS - By John Ir­ish, Robert-Jan Bartunek and Orhan Coskun

There were mul­ti­ple chances to stop the men who at­tacked Paris. In Jan­uary, Turk­ish au­thor­i­ties de­tained one of the sui­cide bombers at Tur­key’s border and de­ported him to Bel­gium. Brahim Ab­deslam, Turk­ish au­thor­i­ties told Bel­gian po­lice at the time, had been “rad­i­calised” and was sus­pected of want­ing to join Is­lamic State in Syria, a Turk­ish se­cu­rity source told Reuters. Yet dur­ing ques­tion­ing in Bel­gium, Ab­deslam de­nied any in­volve­ment with mil­i­tants and was set free. So was his brother Salah - a de­ci­sion that Bel­gian au­thor­i­ties say was based on scant ev­i­dence that ei­ther man had ter­ror­ist in­ten­tions.

On Nov 13, Ab­deslam blew him­self up at Le Comp­toir Voltaire bar in Paris, killing him­self and wound­ing one other. Salah is also a sus­pect in the at­tacks, claimed by the Is­lamic State, and is now on the run. In France, an “S” (State Se­cu­rity) file for peo­ple sus­pected of be­ing a threat to na­tional se­cu­rity had been is­sued on Is­mail Omar Moste­fai, who would det­o­nate his ex­plo­sive vest in­side Paris’ Bat­a­clan con­cert hall. Moste­fai, a French­man of Al­ge­rian de­scent, was placed on the list in 2010, French po­lice sources say.

Turk­ish po­lice also con­sid­ered him a terror sus­pect with links to Is­lamic State. Ankara wrote to Paris about him in Dec 2014 and in June this year, a se­nior Turk­ish gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial said. The warn­ing went un­heeded. Paris an­swered last week, af­ter the at­tacks. A fourth at­tacker missed at least four weekly check-ins with French po­lice in 2013, be­fore au­thor­i­ties is­sued an ar­rest war­rant for him. By that time he had left the coun­try.

On any one of th­ese oc­ca­sions, po­lice, in­tel­li­gence and se­cu­rity ser­vices had an op­por­tu­nity to de­tain at least some of the men who launched the at­tacks. That they did not, helps ex­plain how a group of Is­lamist mil­i­tants was able to or­gan­ise even as they moved freely among coun­tries within the open bor­ders of Europe’s pass­port-free Schen­gen area and be­yond. Taken one by one, each mis­step has its own ex­pla­na­tion, se­cu­rity ser­vices say. They at­tribute the lapses in com­mu­ni­ca­tion, in­abil­ity to keep track of sus­pected mil­i­tants and fail­ure to act on in­tel­li­gence, to a lack of re­sources in some coun­tries and a surge in the num­ber of would-be ji­hadis.

But a close ex­am­i­na­tion by Reuters of a se­ries of missed red flags and mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tions cul­mi­nat­ing in France’s big­gest atroc­ity since World War Two puts on stark dis­play the mount­ing dif­fi­cul­ties faced by anti-ter­ror­ism units across Europe and their fu­ture abil­ity to keep the con­ti­nent safe. “We’re in a sit­u­a­tion where the ser­vices are over­run. They ex­pect some­thing to hap­pen, but don’t know where,” said Nathalie Goulet, who heads up the French Se­nate’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion com­mit­tee into ji­hadi net­works.

Many point to Bel­gium as a weak link in Euro­pean se­cu­rity. “They sim­ply don’t have the same means as Bri­tain’s MI5 or the DGSI (French in­tel­li­gence agency),” said Louis Capri­oli, a for­mer head of the DST, France’s for­mer an­titer­ror­ism unit. Bel­gian Prime Min­is­ter Charles Michel de­fended his coun­try’s se­cu­rity ser­vices and praised them for do­ing “a dif­fi­cult and tough job.” French Pres­i­dent Fran­cois Hol­lande also praised his coun­try’s se­cu­rity ser­vices, who hunted down and shot dead the man they iden­ti­fied as the ring­leader, Ab­del­hamid Abaaoud, five days af­ter the at­tacks.

Europol, the Euro­pean Union’s po­lice agency, says it has been feed­ing in­for­ma­tion to the Bel­gian and French au­thor­i­ties but ac­knowl­edges that some mem­ber states are bet­ter at shar­ing in­for­ma­tion than oth­ers.

Fo­cus On Fight­ers Re­turn­ing From Syria

The fo­cus of in­ves­ti­ga­tors over the past few years has been men and women who have grown up in Europe, have Euro­pean pass­ports and who travel to Syria to train and fight. As the num­ber of those fight­ers has in­creased, au­thor­i­ties have strug­gled to keep up. The French In­te­rior Min­istry es­ti­mated about 500 French na­tion­als had trav­elled to Syria and al­most 300 had re­turned. French au­thor­i­ties reckon up to 1,400 peo­ple need 24-hour sur­veil­lance. Yet France has only about the same num­ber of of­fi­cers to carry out the task, a tenth of those needed.

Some 350 peo­ple from Bel­gium have gone to Syria to fight - the high­est per capita num­ber in Europe. A Bel­gian gov­ern­ment source said Bel­gium has a list of 400 peo­ple who are in Syria, have re­turned or are be­lieved to be about to go there. There are an­other 400-500 peo­ple who au­thor­i­ties be­lieve have rad­i­calised. The num­ber of peo­ple in the Bel­gian se­cu­rity ser­vices car­ry­ing out sur­veil­lance is be­lieved to be con­sid­er­ably fewer than this.

The num­bers par­tially ex­plain why many of the at­tack­ers in Paris were well-known faces still at large. The at­tacks killed 130 peo­ple at var­i­ous lo­ca­tions, in­clud­ing the Bat­a­clan con­cert hall where 89 con­cert-go­ers were gunned down or blown up. Oth­ers were killed out­side the Stade de France sports sta­dium and in bars and restau­rants around cen­tral Paris. Seven as­sailants died dur­ing the at­tacks. Abaaoud was killed in a po­lice raid north of Paris on Wed­nes­day along with one other sui­cide at­tacker and a woman be­lieved to be his cousin. Dozens of peo­ple have also been de­tained, some with weapons and ex­plo­sives, in raids since then.

Abaaoud him­self had been well­known to au­thor­i­ties for sev­eral years. Af­ter a raid in Jan­uary in the Bel­gian town of Verviers, po­lice sus­pected the 28-year-old of plot­ting to kid­nap a po­lice of­fi­cer and kill him. In Fe­bru­ary, Abaaoud said in an in­ter­view with an Is­lamic State mag­a­zine that he had re­turned to Syria af­ter the raid in Verviers. By this time, he knew he was be­ing sought.

If it is true that he re­turned to Syria from Verviers, Abaaoud made his way back into Europe at some point af­ter Jan­uary. French au­thor­i­ties did not know this un­til they were tipped off by Morocco af­ter the at­tacks. “If Abaaoud was able to go from Syria to Europe, that means there are fail­ings in the en­tire Euro­pean sys­tem,” French For­eign Min­is­ter Lau­rent Fabius said.


Moste­fai, the Bat­a­clan sui­cide bomber, also trav­elled back and forth. Al­though he had eight con­vic­tions as a petty crim­i­nal, he had never been in prison, a place French au­thor­i­ties can watch for signs of rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion. Po­lice say they sus­pected him of be­ing in Syria be­tween late 2013 and early 2014, be­fore re­turn­ing to France un­no­ticed. In De­cem­ber of last year, Tur­key con­tacted France about Moste­fai. They raised an alarm again in June 2015 by let­ter.

There was no re­sponse from French au­thor­i­ties, ac­cord­ing to a se­nior Turk­ish gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial and a se­cu­rity source. “It seemed there was a con­nec­tion be­tween this per­son and Daesh (Is­lamic State) and we re­ported it,” the Turk­ish se­cu­rity source said. “We fol­lowed all in­ter­na­tional pro­ce­dures. But they (the French) didn’t dis­play the same level of sen­si­tiv­ity.” French of­fi­cials de­clined to com­ment on this, but say that co­or­di­na­tion with Tur­key over po­ten­tial French ji­hadis has im­proved markedly in the past year.

De­ter­min­ing how dan­ger­ous a per­son is, and whether they might carry out an at­tack, is a key chal­lenge for se­cu­rity ser­vices, ex­perts say. “The other dif­fi­culty is that if you have noth­ing con­crete for sev­eral years, you can’t keep ei­ther a so­phis­ti­cated tech­ni­cal alert sys­tem or hu­man re­sources on a per­son who makes him­self for­got­ten for three or four years,” said Ar­naud Dan­jean, a for­mer in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer and now a mem­ber of the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment.

Bi­lal Hadfi, who blew him­self up out­side the Stade de France, was an­other of the sui­cide at­tack­ers un­der sur­veil­lance. Af­ter vis­it­ing Syria in Fe­bru­ary, the 20-year-old French na­tional, who was liv­ing in Bel­gium, re­turned to Europe by an un­known route and evaded po­lice even though the Bel­gian Jus­tice Min­istry said mi­cro­phones had been placed at the house where he was thought to be stay­ing.

Then there’s the case of Sami Ami­mour. French au­thor­i­ties had launched an of­fi­cial in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Ami­mour’s pos­si­ble ter­ror­ism-re­lated ac­tiv­ity in Oct 2012. Pros­e­cu­tors sus­pected him of plan­ning to join mil­i­tants in Ye­men. Ami­mour was a bus driver who had been rad­i­calised in a mosque near his home­town of Drancy, north of Paris. Be­cause of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, po­lice had or­dered Ami­mour to check in with them ev­ery week. As re­ported by Reuters on Nov 20, he missed four weekly checks in 2013. But it was only af­ter nearly a month that the au­thor­i­ties put out an in­ter­na­tional ar­rest war­rant.

By then Ami­mour was al­ready in Syria. His tracks were picked up a year later, in Dec 2014, when his fa­ther gave an in­ter­view to French daily Le Monde de­scrib­ing how he had trav­elled to Syria but failed to con­vince his son to re­turn.

The Men from the Bar

Po­lice are still look­ing for Salah Ab­deslam, who is known to have sur­vived the at­tacks. Un­til six weeks be­fore the at­tacks, Salah and his brother Brahim - one of the sui­cide bombers - were run­ning a bar called Les Beguines on a quiet street in Molen­beek, a low-rent area of Brussels which has been linked with sev­eral at­tacks. Af­ter the at­tacks, Salah Ab­deslam went to ground. Au­thor­i­ties say he was stopped on his way back to Bel­gium af­ter the Paris at­tacks, but po­lice waved him on. It is not clear what role he played on the night of the at­tacks and why he man­aged to sur­vive.

Two men who were ar­rested later, Mo­hamed Amri, 27, and 21-year-old Hamza At­tou, said they brought Ab­deslam back to Brussels af­ter re­ceiv­ing a call from him say­ing his car had bro­ken down. Po­lice checks meant they were pulled over three times, in­clud­ing a last check around 9 am near Cam­brai just short of the Bel­gian border.

Mis­steps did not just hap­pen in France and Bel­gium. The Syr­ian pass­port found near one of the sui­cide bombers at the Stade de France had been used by a man reg­is­ter­ing him­self as a refugee on the Greek is­land of Leros on Oct 3. That man trav­elled through Mace­do­nia and claimed asy­lum in Ser­bia, counter-in­tel­li­gence and se­cu­rity sources said.

The French pros­e­cu­tor has con­firmed that fin­ger­prints taken on ar­rival in Greece showed that man trav­elled with a sec­ond man, who also blew him­self up near the Stade de France. The pair may have reached Paris rel­a­tively eas­ily be­cause, at the height of the mi­gra­tion cri­sis in Europe this year, asy­lum seek­ers were rushed across some na­tional bor­ders with­out checks.

It is un­clear whether the pass­port is­sued un­der the name of Ah­mad Al­Mo­ham­mad, a 25-year-old from the Syr­ian city of Idlib, was gen­uine or was stolen from a refugee. What­ever the truth, it has helped fuel rightwing crit­i­cism in Europe of the num­ber of mi­grants al­lowed in this year. By the time the two men were making their way up through the Balkans to western Europe, France had re­ceived more ev­i­dence an at­tack was im­mi­nent.

French for­mer anti-ter­ror­ism judge Marc Tre­v­idic says a French Is­lamist he ques­tioned on his re­turn from Syria in Au­gust said Is­lamic State had asked him to carry out an at­tack on a con­cert venue. “The guy ad­mit­ted that he was asked to hit a rock con­cert. We didn’t know if it would be Bat­a­clan or an­other, he didn’t know the ex­act lo­ca­tion that would be des­ig­nated. But yes, that’s what they asked him to do,” Tre­v­idic told Reuters.

Iraqi For­eign Min­is­ter Ibrahim AlJaa­fari has also said that his coun­try’s in­tel­li­gence ser­vices shared in­for­ma­tion in­di­cat­ing that France, as well as the United States and Iran, was be­ing tar­geted for at­tack. He has not given de­tails. Ger­many’s top pros­e­cu­tor is also in­ves­ti­gat­ing al­le­ga­tions that an Al­ge­rian man de­tained at a refugee cen­tre in the western town of Arns­berg told Syr­ian refugees an at­tack was im­mi­nent in the French cap­i­tal.

Europe is scram­bling to re­spond to the at­tacks. France de­clared a na­tion­wide state of emer­gency which will now last three months. Po­lice now have the power to con­duct searches with­out ob­tain­ing ju­di­cial war­rants and can hold any­one sus­pected of pos­ing a threat to se­cu­rity un­der house ar­rest for 12 hours a day. In­ter­net sites deemed to in­cite or ad­vo­cate “acts of ter­ror­ism” can be blocked and pub­lic demon­stra­tions banned.

Bel­gium has also an­nounced a se­cu­rity crack­down, say­ing it will spend an ex­tra 400 mil­lion eu­ros ($430 mil­lion) on se­cu­rity and take mea­sures such as stop­ping the sale of mo­bile phone cards to anony­mous buy­ers. Po­lice will be al­lowed to con­duct night searches of homes and it is now eas­ier to ban, con­vict or ex­pel hate preach­ers.

Whether such mea­sures will be enough is un­cer­tain. Brussels is on high alert this week­end be­cause of what au­thor­i­ties there called the “se­ri­ous and im­mi­nent” threat of at­tack. In a video last week, Is­lamic State warned it would strike again. “When a large op­er­a­tion is pre­pared, they are told to keep a low pro­file in the months be­fore. As they are no longer on po­lice radars, it’s like look­ing for a nee­dle in a haystack,” said Roland Jacquard, pres­i­dent of the Paris-based In­ter­na­tional Ter­ror­ism Ob­ser­va­tory. —Reuters

This com­bi­na­tion of pho­tos made in Paris shows the sus­pected mas­ter­mind of the Nov 13, 2015 Paris at­tacks, 28-year-old Bel­gian IS group lead­ing mil­i­tant Ab­del­hamid Abaaoud (cen­ter), French­man Bi­lal Hadfi (left) one of the sui­cide bombers who blew him­self out­side the Stade de France sta­dium, Samy Ami­mour (right), one of the sui­cide bombers who at­tacked a Paris con­cert hall, sus­pect at large French Salah Ab­deslam (sec­ond right), and an uniden­ti­fied man (sec­ond left) sus­pected of be­ing in­volved in the at­tacks. —AFP

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