How the Paris attacks are likely to change the approach of western counter-terrorism

9:02 am - January 19th 2015

by Sunny Hundal    

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The New York Times has published an extraordinary account of how the two terrorists who burst into Charlie Hebdo’s office became radicalised.

Here are a few thoughts from the article, and more generally, that I think have the potential to change how western security services deal with al-Qaeda inspired terrorism.

1) Al-Qaeda’s methods have changed to Mumbai style attacks.
If more such attacks take place across Western Europe, which seems likely, then I suspect they will be more in the style of Paris and Mumbai than the 7/7 bombings. Smuggling, building and learning about detonating explosives takes time and effort. It can also be a hit and miss. But a terrorist attack using an assault rifle is easier for al-Qaeda inspired jihadists to put together. The weapons are easier to get hold off and the practice required is minimal. Seems obvious to say, but I suspect the security services are worrying less about guys carrying backpacks and more about guys looking at acquiring AK-47s.

2) The security services are over-whelmed
The French secret service have a pretty good reputation but even they didn’t see this coming, though the two perpetrators had previously been under surveillance.

After at least one of the Kouachis traveled to Yemen in 2011, the United States alerted French authorities. But three years of tailing the brothers yielded nothing, and an oversight commission ruled that the surveillance was no longer productive, said Louis Caprioli, the deputy head of France’s domestic antiterrorism unit from 1998 to 2004.

The brothers appeared so nonthreatening that surveillance was dropped in the middle of last year, he said, as hundreds of young Muslims cycled back and forth to Syria for jihad and French authorities shifted priorities.

In other words, the job of tracking Muslims thinking about joining ISIS, or those who already have, or have already returned from Syria (estimated at 250 by ICSR), is over-whelming western security services. That means they’re likely to demand more funding and more spying powers. It also means the rise of ISIS has created a lot more targets and problems.

3) Jailing jihadists doesn’t help
One of the Paris attackers was earlier jailed in 2005 to 20 months in prison for attempting an attack. He was just an inexperienced and scared boy then. But, like numerous other cases, it was in prison that he met his future mentor and one of al-Qaeda’s top operatives.

This presents a dilemma. We can’t lock people up in prison forever, and yet that may be the place they become even more radicalised. We can’t track them easily forever either, since it costs a lot of money and the rise of ISIS has made that much harder. So what do we do?
We need good de-radicalisation programmes, but there hasn’t been a serious push across Europe or the USA to embrace them either. That, I think, is short-sighted. Prisons aren’t helping.


Prison authorities quickly recruited a handful of Muslim chaplains, but jihadist hecklers disrupted their prayers.

“They would ask a religious question, and whatever answer he gave, they would contest it,” the Muslim activist said. They would mockingly toss out questions: What did the imam think about jihad? What about the situation in Palestine? Why wasn’t halal meat served in the prison?

These guys need aggressive de-radicalisation, not some half-hearted attempts.

4) More Muslims will be arrested merely for reading ‘extremist’ material
Also striking in the NYT report is that the French police had been tracking the terrorists, even to the point that they broke up another plot in 2010 involving one of the brothers. But it was thought there wasn’t enough evidence to convict him despite this:

Among the texts recovered on the laptop — which were included in the court documents — was one titled “Operation Sacrifice.” It described a plan of attack that eerily augured the actions he would later take.

“A mujahideen forces his way into the enemy’s base or else a zone where there is a group and fires at point-blank range without having prepared an escape plan,” it said. “The goal is to kill as many of the enemy as possible. The author will very likely die himself.”

And here is the security service chief’s nightmare – the guy they had been tracking and caught would later commit a major attack like the one he had read about. Fingers will be pointed at the French services, and I suspect MI5 here and the FBI will think its better to be safe than sorry from now on.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Reader comments

1. Mike Killingworth

Excellent analysis, Sunny: thank you.

A couple of additional thoughts: first, the Paris murders may have been intended, in part, to demonstrate that al-Qaeda is still around – after all, it doesn’t want all the radicalised youth going off to the other lot.

Second, there is a real problem for Western governments in that the most effective counter-terrorist measures may not command popular support. There is a need for more public education on this matter, and a willingness to show all-Party unity on the issue. Whether our politicians are adult enough to behave this way is another matter.


Our rulers have got us into a terrible mess. Is there any way out? No-one seems to have a clue, despite all the talk. Radio 4 had a chap introduced as a terrorism expert the other day. He sounded all confident and on top of things. Trouble is, when I visited his website his latest analysis, from before Charlie, said this:

“The year has ended with a sharp increase in “lone wolf” terrorist attacks … Yet while it feels like the threat is on the rise and security services are working at full strength to counter the risk, we are actually safer from the threat of terrorism at home … Almost a decade since the July 7 bombings we are now facing a terrorist threat that is only really able to express itself in the form of lone-wolf attacks … If work by the security services has managed to reduce the threat down to lone-wolf terrorists or deranged individuals then things are not necessarily as bad as they seem … The concern caused by lone-wolf terrorism is understandable … But it must be kept in context. Terrorist groups continue to want to attack the West, yet find it increasingly hard to do so.”

If only that were so.

The individualistic and selfish Euro-American culture seems to generate lone-wolves of all persuasions by the thousands, so even were it the case that Islamists “find it increasingly hard” to attack us except by lone-wolf, which is questionable in itself, still lone-wolves in quantity could alone more than accomplish their aims if the latest action-reaction is at all indicative in its magnitude.

Prison is worse than useless. Just as prisons are schools for ordinary crime, the same applies to terrorism, if anything more so as it provides intensive conditions and pressure cooker for hate.

Completely agree about point one. You can even cause big problems with a hand gun. Fire off a few shots and you would close part of a city down. Or a rail network or subway system.
I used to think some Jews were being alamrmist when they said that parts of Europe were now feeling dangerous for them, but one of the Kouachi brothers admitted that he had reconnoitered Jewish shops in a particular area of Paris with a view to attacking them, so how can those people ever feel safe again?

Point two: yes, they are overwhelmed.

Ponit three: you can’t put them all in prison, but on the other hand, no one has to worry about Abu Hamza ever again.
France just sent some hapless convert to prison for seven years. It might be a bit harsh, but it will certainly be a punishment for going to Syria. His profile makes him one of the ones you have to be careful about also.
”While growing up, he was convicted 13 times for a range of crimes, including armed robbery and assault.”

As for de-radicalisation programmes, they are trying it in some places like Denmark, but the verdict on them still isn’t clear. Some ”experts” have their doubts as to how effective they can be. See Daily Mail article ”Countries wrestle with how to de-radicalise returning jihadists”.
It’s said to only work with people who are down the path toward de-radicalistion a bit already.
And that because of the numbers involved, people will be getting radicalised faster than they can be brought back from that.

A question might be, what are you going to do about kids who are watching Jihadist stuff on the internet, and who will share beheading videos on their phones because they think that’s the thing to do? Any teenagers doing that – and smoking weed – are potentially a big problem, because that’s been the profile – from these brothers, to the Madrid bombers.
Another terrible statistic I saw, was that France’s prison population is 70% Muslim while they only make up 8% of the country. Lots of weed smoking ner-do-wells who aren’t good Muslims, who when sent inside, decide they want to do ”Muslim prison time” and start catching up on their religion. For some it might straighten them out, but for others it will be radicalistion.

Most of the Left are so behind, so Eurocentric and so parochial, lacking a response to reactionary Islamism. When is Sunny, for example, going to do a piece supporting the democracy and human rights movement in Rojava which is struggling for the same things we surely all are?

When is the West going to wake up and understand that getting rid of secular regimes in the Islamic world (Iraq, Lybia, Syria) while simultaneously supporting the theocratic regimes and the Jihadist insurgents and shaykhs that those theocratic regimes are quietly funding is exactly what has led to this whole situation in the first place?

Until we deal with that oil/money/politics axis the problems will only get worse and worse.

A question might be, what are you going to do about kids who are watching Jihadist stuff on the internet, and who will share beheading videos on their phones because they think that’s the thing to do? Any teenagers doing that – and smoking weed – are potentially a big problem,

They are also potentially no problem at all.

The difficulty is in determining who will and who will not be a problem.

Although I suggest the latter is evidently the more likely outcome.

Ukliberty, those young people are already a problem if they are doing that. Not a terrorist problem but an antisocial and divisive one.
What you are saying is that people who have an Islamist outlook are not a problem if they don’t actually commit crimes. In France 99% of those young people who back that antisemitic comedian probably don’t actually commit antisemitic crimes, but just add to the disfunction of society.

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