9:02 am - January 19th 2015
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.
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
· Other posts by Sunny Hundal
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