One of the very few core duties of government is to deliver security to its citizens. But on 13 November the French state failed to protect its citizens from an appalling Islamist attack.
As the whole world knows, Paris is a city for those who love life. On that Friday it was attacked by jihadists in love with death. The massacre that followed was not simply an outrage against humankind, it was also a devastating failure of intelligence and security. This is now widely accepted even by the French authorities.
This attack involved at least two dozen individuals, armed with AK-47 assault rifles, bombs and even a rocket launcher, and was planned and steered by the ISIS in Raqqa and executed by French speaking jihadists from Belgium and France, possibly with a German link. In other words, many communications needed to have been made, for several weeks and within and between different countries, for this plot to bear its foul fruit.
What this means for intelligence gathering is that there will have been many opportunities for intercepting these messages and preventing the terrorists from realising their murderous plan. But the French lack the sophisticated software to mine communications data and link seemingly unconnected pieces of text and their current laws (about to be updated in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings in January) are insufficient. They failed, too, to understand that the terrorists would communicate via the chat button on the Sony PlayStation.
Ironically, a new French law allowing more effective monitoring of communications was passed by French Parliament on 23 July. But before being enacted it will face challenge in the French and then European courts. Many in France have valued privacy more than security and their impact has been felt. There are signs today that French public opinion has turned and that more people now support effective intelligence-led security. But in a few weeks the mood may change — until the next attack, of course.
Open borders within continental Europe and a foolish policy towards migrants coming into Europe, one that offered at best the most cursory and inadequate screening and at worst no checks at all, has meant that weapons from the east could be carried west to Brussels and Paris without any fear that they would be detected.
The French President is, of course, right to argue that until ISIS is destroyed as a physical entity, without resources (and the ability to organise and train jihadists), there can be no end in sight to the Islamist threat to Europe. In this he echoes David Cameron’s long-standing wish to intervene against ISIS not just in Iraq (where the UK is doing this already) but in Syria. He needs, almost certainly, Parliamentary agreement. He failed to get it, stabbed in the back by his own right-wingers and a left Labour party. Today, the Labour party is further to the left and has a pacifist leader. It is not clear that today Cameron will win more support from Parliament. But he has been right all along on this matter. ISIS must be destroyed and Assad removed.
President Francois Hollande has called for “a union of all, a single coalition” to fight the jihadists and his inclusion of Russia in the plan adds some definition to the idea. He has invoked Article 42 of the Lisbon Treaty, which requires other EU states to offer aid and assistance “by all means in their power”, which could be not very much.
It is a very bad idea to invite Russia to join this coalition. Russia not only has its own plans for Syria (supporting Assad, whose brutal policies have led to the mass refugee crisis we face and ready to work with Iran and therefore Hezbollah), it has a terrible track record in recent years of threatening its Baltic neighbours, using force to change the borders in eastern Europe. Its missiles brought down Flight MH17 over the skies of Ukraine.
Rather, Article Five of the NATO Treaty should not be invoked (where an attack on one NATO state is deemed an attack on all of them, requiring a common response with force of arms).
When France calls for better frontier protection between the EU and the world beyond, it places its faith in an organisation, FRONTEX, which cannot possibly fulfil this task. Instead the internal borders within the EU should be reinstated with full border controls as long as the terrorist threat persists. France must rapidly introduce a more modern system of communications interception.
Of course, ISIS and their European conscripts are the perpetrators here. We must not forget this. But knowing that ISIS was able to recruit, plan and execute well-planned commando type attacks, it was not hard to deduce that extensive communications would have taken place in order to produce the desired result. Every communication was in theory capable of being intercepted and each one might have allowed this massacre to have been averted.
Finally, continental European culture must be changed. In France, as in Germany, people regard their privacy as an absolute right, and frequently view the delivery of national security through intelligence-led activity as an attack on their liberty. Until it is understood that lawful and modern intelligence does not undermine freedom, it sustains it, more attacks like the one on 13 November are not only possible, they are highly likely.
Professor Anthony Glees MA MPhil DPhil (Oxon), is Director, Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies (BUCSIS) at University of Buckingham.