Paris Hebdo attacks: Could French authorities have stopped them?

Some are wondering whether French security missed signs that could have prevented last week's violence in Paris. But experts say there is no measure that could guarantee Europe's safety.

Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters
French soldiers patrol near the Eiffel Tower Monday as part of the highest level of 'Vigipirate' security plan after a shooting at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo.

Five days after the attacks on satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris, more information is coming out about the past criminal and terrorist records of brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi, and Amedy Coulibaly. While no group has claimed responsibility for last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris, evidence now shows that the trio were a known threat to authorities.

Now, many in France are wondering whether more could have been done in terms of security to prevent the events of last week.

But experts say that despite the trio being on authorities' radar, there was little warning that they were planning to escalate from low-level extremist activities to such a radical attack. And even if there had been greater scrutiny of the three, there is no drawbridge option for Europe to protect itself from terrorists.

“No matter how many resources you throw at it," says Nick Witney, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, "you’re never going to be able to insulate Europe from the Middle East."

Red flags?

Senior Yemeni sources confirmed on Sunday that Charlie Hebdo gunmen Cherif and Said Kouachi both traveled in 2011 to Yemen, where Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is based, and carried out weapons training.

“These two brothers arrived in Oman on July 25, 2011, and from Oman they were smuggled into Yemen, where they stayed for two weeks,” a senior Yemeni security official said, as reported by Al Jazeera. “They met [Al-Qaeda preacher] Anwar al-Awlaki and then they were trained for three days in the deserts of Marib on how to fire a gun. They returned to Oman and they left Oman on Aug. 15, 2011, to go back to France.”

A video released on Sunday shows Coulibaly – who killed four hostages when he held up a kosher grocery store in Paris on Friday – pledging his allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, potentially pointing to the group’s involvement in the attacks.

In addition to being flagged for their Yemen activities, Cherif Kouachi was sentenced to three years in prison in 2008 in France after he and six other men were found guilty of helping funnel fighters to Iraq. And according to US officials, the Kouachi brothers had been in the US terrorism database and on its no-fly list for years.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told reporters that the brothers were “being watched over, but there were no elements at the time to warrant starting an inquiry."

Jean-Luc Marret is a senior fellow at the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, a think tank on international security issues in France. He says there are two ways of surveying people with the profile like that of the three men involved in Paris’s terrorist attacks, with neither of them being 100 percent effective. Either they leave prison and are considered non-dangerous, or they are put under surveillance but it is not at a constant, round-the-clock level.

Regardless, he says, France does not have the necessary security abilities to deal with current terrorist or potential terrorist activity. “The French counter-terrorism operations seem to be a bit overwhelmed.”

Limits of security

This week, European Council President Donald Tusk plans to push for an initiative to increase airline passenger screening and create a shared database to weed out terrorists. The European Union has been reluctant to go ahead with this type of regulation thus far because of controversy on citizen surveillance.

Mr. Witney says that while sharing information across countries is probably a good thing, there are downsides to such legislation.

“What we’re doing is allowing a small number of determined and barbarous people to turn us into a security state, with ever greater degrees of surveillance,” he says. Inevitably, says Witney, Europeans either collectively or individually look for ways to tighten up security after a situation like the attacks in Paris. “But I think we are in severe danger of, over time, continually squeezing our civil liberties.”

Most experts agree that the issue of France’s or Europe’s security goes further than monitoring airline databases or offering more police surveillance of former criminals. As French officials have said repeatedly since last week’s attacks, they cannot put a police officer behind each person. And with illicit trafficking rings – be it for weapons, humans, or organized crime – operating globally, the task of tracking and weeding out potential terrorists seems daunting, if not impossible.

Mr. Marret says that if France is going to address its security issues, it will have to go further than spot-treatment like national legislation or tightening up security controls within the Schengen zone.

“In terms of Europe’s anti-terrorism measures, there needs to be a bilateral cooperation between states, particularly France’s cooperation with the US and Algeria,” he says. “Without this cooperation, the other measures won’t work.”

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