Paris attackers exploit intelligence gaps remaining open
PARIS, France—The Paris attackers exploited intelligence holes from France to Syria, authorities say, taking advantage of mistrust between European governments, France’s overwhelmed security services and the collapse of authority across the war zone contested by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) group.
Eleven days after the attacks in Paris, French authorities have announced few details about the investigation, and Brussels remains locked down for reasons the government has hardly explained. Officials aren’t disclosing everything they have found out about the attackers and their travels between Europe and Syria. But officials and security experts say it seems clear that Europe’s borderless travel and suspicion between governments at sharing intelligence information left the continent vulnerable.
“At the national level it’s a question of resources. Dealing with just the sheer number of foreign fighters, of known and potential terrorists in a country like France, has without question started to overwhelm the French security services,” Christopher S. Chivvis, associate director of RAND’s International Security and Defense Policy Center, told The Associated Press.
On the European level, he said, baked-in mistrust between intelligence agencies, as well as privacy concerns, have complicated how the bloc is policed: “Unless the will is there to actually share intelligence between one agency and another, it’s just not going to happen.”
As many as four attackers’ remains have not been publicly or fully identified, including two with questionable Syrian passports. Given French government pleas for help identifying assailants, it appears they were not in France’s extensive DNA database. The total number of attackers has not been spelled out, and French authorities have not said how many people directly involved could still be at large. These gaps point to a security service, one of Europe’s most sophisticated, that was caught off guard—and many blame cross-border failures.
The head of Frontex, Europe’s border control agency, conceded that lack of European cooperation is a grave issue, saying the agency conducts no security checks on its own because European governments don’t trust each other enough to pool databases.
“We are paying today for this lack of trust, which has lasted a decade, of these same governments and European deputies in the European agencies,” Fabrice Leggeri, the Frontex chief, told Le Parisien newspaper. He said Frontex sent a private letter to European governments noting that security at the outer edges of Europe was overwhelmed.
President Barack Obama cautioned Tuesday against speculation on what went wrong ahead of the Paris attacks. But he underscored the need for better information sharing: “What is true is we can do a better job of coordinating between countries,” Obama said in a joint White House press conference with French President Francois Hollande.
Authorities have not yet pinpointed the role of the suspected mastermind, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, nor the lone fugitive in the attacks, Salah Abdeslam. Nor have they explained why—nearly 12 hours after the assault began—a gendarme near the Belgian border stopped and then released Abdeslam, whose brother was among the suicide bombers and whose rental car had already been linked to the attack.
Salah Abdeslam is still on the run. Left behind was an unexploded suicide vest that was found in the trash Monday in the same suburb where his cell phone pinged the night of the attacks, according to the French officials, who spoke about the ongoing investigation on condition of anonymity.
Two of the suicide attackers at France’s national stadium had Syrian passports that officials with knowledge of the investigation cautioned are believed to be fakes. Both were recorded passing through the Mediterranean island of Leros on Oct. 3, Greek officials say, among thousands claiming asylum from the war in Syria.
France’s interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the attacks “were prepared by cells outside our borders using people who were not known to our intelligence services.” Two U.S. officials said many—though not all—of the attackers identified were on the American no-fly list. It remains unclear who supplied the information to the Americans, although a senior U.S. intelligence official said most American intelligence about European jihadis comes from European intelligence services.
All but one of those identified in the attacks are French; many have deep ties to Belgium. The majority are believed to have come home after training with Islamic extremists in Syria, as have more than 500 French extremists —more than any other Western European country.
The senior American official said the U.S. has seen nothing suggesting European intelligence services missed a crucial piece of information that should have led to the disruption of the plot, adding that the French had information about many of the attackers. But he said they appeared to have been unable to put the disparate strands together fast enough to stop the attack, which was planned in large part via encryption. He said French were simply overwhelmed by the number of radicals in their midst.
One French police official, with knowledge of the investigation, said it came as a surprise to learn that Abaaoud, the suspected mastermind, had a cousin in the Paris suburb of St. Denis who was already under investigation in a drug case. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to publicly share details of the investigation, said it was even more of a shock to learn that Abaaoud himself was in the same Paris area, despite his status as one of Europe’s most wanted men. Abaaoud is among the dead in rubble of a St. Denis home that was raided on Nov. 18.
French authorities have linked Abaaoud to four failed attacks in Europe this year, including the attempted takeover of a high-speed Thalys train that was thwarted when the gunman’s assault rifle jammed, and he was overpowered by a group of American friends and a British businessman.
They haven’t said how Abaaoud directed those attacks, nor where he had been since last believed spotted in Europe. That was days after the January attacks in Paris that targeted the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket. Abaaoud re-emerged on Paris metro surveillance footage on the night of the Nov. 13 attacks—200 meters (yards) from where one of the cars used in the carnage was abandoned and accompanied by an unidentified man, according to an official with ties to the investigation.
Further highlighting the intelligence confusion and porous borders, Italy’s interior minister, Angelino Alfano, confirmed Tuesday that Salah Abdeslam and another suspected Islamic State militant had caught a ferry in Italy in August and headed to Greece when “they were free citizens, not sought-after terrorists.”
For France, which has an untold number of people flagged with ties to radicalism, the main problem is sorting out which information is important, said Alain Bauer, a French criminologist.
“The question is not to put more people on the list but to filter with what is really important or not. That’s our problem: too much information and not enough analysts,” he said. “Ninety percent of the terrorist plots are destroyed before they even go into action. The problem is to go from 90 to 99. The problem is the 9 percent we know about but don’t understand.”
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