PARIS — Last June, Patrick Calvar, the head of France’s domestic intelligence service, faced a decision: continue surveillance on a French Islamist who had been viewed as a potential threat for a decade, or shift limited resources to help monitor a swelling new generation of fighters returning from Syria.
The surveillance on the Islamist, Saïd Kouachi, had turned up nothing for over two years, and monitoring of his younger brother, Chérif Kouachi, had been abandoned the previous year, French officials say. Earlier in 2014, the intelligence service had transferred Saïd Kouachi’s case for several months to the Paris police, a sign that it was no longer considered a priority.
Continue reading the main story
The Paris newsroom of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, after two brothers walked in with military precision and killed 12 people in the name of Allah.Chérif and Saïd Kouachi’s Path to Paris Attack at Charlie HebdoJAN. 17, 2015 Continue reading the main story
Greg Bellamy 19 February 2015
Lots of Monday morning quarterbacking here. Somebody made a decision. It was the wrong decision. If we hold every decision-marker…
Jon Davis 19 February 2015
For each complicated problem, there is a simple solution (usually proposed by a “conservative”) who mind lives far in the distant past)…
abo 18 February 2015
I prefer a country which respects human rights to one which provides 100% security. But then the U.S. doesn’t even provide 100% security -…
SEE ALL COMMENTS
The three-member commission scrutinizing requests for cellphone monitoring by the intelligence agency had signaled that its recommendation would be against further surveillance. And the prime minister, Manuel Valls, was under intense pressure to focus on what seemed to be the more immediate threat emanating from Syria; the previous month, Mehdi Nemmouche, a 29-year-old Frenchman who had fought in Syria, had gunned down four people at a Jewish museum in Brussels.
From left: Mohammed Merah, who shot seven in Toulouse; Mehdi Nemmouche, a Frenchman who killed four in Brussels Credit From left: France 2, via Associated Press; Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The counterterrorism team reporting to Mr. Calvar, a longtime intelligence official, allowed the surveillance order on Saïd Kouachi to expire. Less than seven months later, the Kouachi brothers burst through the doors at the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and fatally shot 12 people, setting off a two-day manhunt that involved a third gunman and ended with another five victims and the deaths of all three gunmen.
The decision to drop surveillance of the Kouachis was one in a series of developments that, in the aftermath of the deadliest acts of terrorism in France since Algeria’s struggle for independence in the 1960s, suggests substantial failures or weaknesses in French intelligence and law enforcement.
It also highlights security challenges facing other Western governments, as Denmark was reminded this weekend when a native-born Muslim gunman in Copenhagen killed two people in an attack that had numerous similarities to the rampage in and around Paris last month.
Largely caught off guard by the proliferation of potential threats, they now confront wrenching trade-offs in deciding how and whether to monitor hundreds or thousands of their citizens who are traveling in and out of conflict zones, otherwise making contact with radicals or being inspired by assaults like the one on Charlie Hebdo.
The French government is still in the early stages of reviewing what went wrong in the case of the Kouachis and the third gunman, Amedy Coulibaly, who also fell off the radar of the French authorities after being released from prison last spring.
Current and former officials say the surveillance on the Kouachis had turned up nothing to indicate that they were an imminent threat. They point to the lack of resources to conduct physical surveillance on large numbers of targets, estimating that 25 agents, working in shifts, are required to watch over a single person day and night.
From left: Salim Oman Benghalem, who traveled to Yemen; Peter Cherif, who also traveled there. Credit From left: LeMonde; Benoit Peyrucq/Agence France-Presse
“You can’t follow everyone,” said Bernard Squarcini, who was Mr. Calvar’s predecessor as head of the domestic intelligence agency and was in charge when the Kouachis were placed under surveillance after a tipoff from the United States in 2011. “These were two inactive targets that had been quiet for a long time. They were giving nothing away.”
Others were less forgiving. “Even if you give France a bit of a break,” said one former senior United States counterterrorism official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid antagonizing an ally, “given what we know, and what the French knew then, these guys should have been high on any list. Especially since they seemed to have all the warning signs: travel to the region, a prison record, a social media profile. What more did they need?”
At the very least, the Charlie Hebdo attack has provoked a fundamental debate about the quality of intelligence gathering in France. Long considered among the best in the world, French intelligence has been troubled by three high-profile failures in four years: Before the Kouachis and the Nemmouche case, there was Mohammed Merah, a French-Algerian whose surveillance had been dropped shortly before he shot seven people in Toulouse in March 2012.
At a time when budget cuts and debates over the balance between national security and personal liberty are making the trade-offs for security forces even more complex, the case of the Kouachis stands out. They were well known to the authorities in the United States as well as France before the radical group known as the Islamic State came on the scene — and they struck just when the authorities had turned their attention to the threat posed by the new generation of jihadists inspired by the group, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
Interviews with current and former French and American officials and other experts provided new details about key moments and the lapses, misunderstandings and turf issues that characterized the case.
The intelligence agencies in France, the United States and elsewhere proved limited in their ability to track potential radicals in countries where they went to fight, train or meet other Islamists.
Continue reading the main story
Graphic: The Links Among the Paris Terror Suspects and Their Connections to Jihad
Although Yemeni officials had tracked a Frenchman they believed to be Saïd Kouachi on a visit to Yemen in 2011 and eventually informed the United States, who passed word along to the French authorities, it was only after the Charlie Hebdo shootings that it became clear that it was actually Chérif Kouachi who had been to Yemen, traveling on his brother’s passport. And the authorities only learned after the shootings, when Chérif spoke by phone to a television station shortly before he was killed in a shootout, that he had met there with the radical American-born preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, a senior Qaeda commander promoting jihad against the West.
As intelligence cooperation has largely dried up in Syria, and has been imperiled in Yemen by the factional fighting there, the challenge of tracking suspects has become even harder.
The intelligence agencies also failed to appreciate how fully radicalized Chérif Kouachi had become, in particular by missing or not recognizing the importance of his association with two other French fighters who were in Yemen in 2011.
As early as 2011, American and French officials had identified at least one other hardened French jihadist traveling in Yemen at the same time as Mr. Kouachi: Peter Cherif, known for his links to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Qaeda leader in Iraq, and for the time he spent in Abu Ghraib prison before returning to France. Mr. Cherif — who, like Chérif Kouachi, had links to the so-called Buttes-Chaumont group of radicalized young French Muslims in northeastern Paris after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 — is believed to be in Yemen today.
A second Frenchman in Yemen in 2011, Salim Oman Benghalem, who also had ties to members of the Buttes-Chaumont group, was added to at least one United States counterterrorism list last summer, a few weeks after the French government ended surveillance on Saïd Kouachi. Mr. Benghalem is believed by the United States to be fighting in Syria with the Islamic State.
In addition, the authorities failed to update their surveillance methods as their targets grew more sophisticated, raising questions about whether governments have put too much faith in electronic eavesdropping.
From left: Saîd and Chérif Kouachi, Charlie Hebdo assailants. Credit From left: French Police via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images; Getty Images
The electronic surveillance employed in France was limited largely to listening in on cellphone conversations. But Chérif Kouachi, who had previously been arrested based on intercepted phone conversations, was almost certainly aware of the likelihood that his phone was being monitored, reducing if not eliminating the possibility that he would have discussed planning for an attack on it. The agencies handling the cases of the Kouachis had few other legal options for surveillance.
“The phone tapping yielded nothing,” Marc Trévidic, the chief terrorism investigator for the French judicial system, said in an interview. “If we had continued, I’m convinced it wouldn’t have changed anything. No one talks on the phone anymore.”
Finally, France’s counterterrorism efforts are spread among a variety of agencies operating under different authorities that do not always appear to cooperate and coordinate. At least 13 bodies have some intelligence-gathering responsibility — including the main domestic intelligence agency, known by its French abbreviation, D.G.S.I., and its better-resourced foreign counterpart, the D.G.S.E., but also smaller units attached to the Paris police, the national police, the paramilitary gendarmerie, the judicial police and even the customs office.
The Kouachi case was handled primarily by the predecessor of the D.G.S.I., which was only created last May and whose internal reorganization and staff expansion is expected to take five years. A year ago, the agency, then known as the D.C.R.I. and still an adjunct to the national police instead of directly reporting to the interior minister, handed the Saïd Kouachi case over to the intelligence arm of the Paris police. But when the police realized that Saïd had moved to Reims, 90 miles northeast of Paris, his file was returned to the newly created D.G.S.I., which subsequently failed to put its Reims station in charge of the case.
Since the Charlie Hebdo shootings, there have been questions about whether the case might have been better handled by the prosecutorial system that falls under the judiciary, an entirely separate bureaucracy that has broader powers than the intelligence agencies to monitor terrorism suspects.
“Ideally, this should have become a judicial affair,” Mr. Trévidic said. “We can bug homes and track cars and confiscate computers. When we’re worried about someone, we get a warrant and go into their flat. We take what we need and analyze their computers, which is something the intelligence services can’t do.”
Continue reading the main story
MORE ON THE PARIS SHOOTINGS
The Men Behind the Cartoons at Charlie Hebdo
The Men Behind the Cartoons at Charlie HebdoJAN. 08, 2015
France’s Ideals, Forged in Revolution, Face a Modern Test
France’s Ideals, Forged in Revolution, Face a Modern Test FEB. 03, 2015
Proud to Offend, Charlie Hebdo Carries Torch of Political Provocation
Proud to Offend, Charlie Hebdo Carries Torch of Political ProvocationJAN. 08, 2015
Mayor of Paris Grows Into Her New Role as Comforter in Chief
Mayor of Paris Grows Into Her New Role as Comforter in ChiefFEB. 08, 2015
The surveillance on Saïd Kouachi did alert the security services to an apparent counterfeiting operation he was involved in, selling fake brand clothes and sports shoes. This followed an episode two years ago, when he was fined for importing fake Nike shoes by postal delivery from China.
A few months before the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January, the intelligence unit of the customs police filed a report to the domestic intelligence service, requesting its support, according to a senior official with knowledge of the case. “But they don’t seem to have done anything with that information,” the official said, a lapse that some experts cited in questions about whether the counterfeiting operation might have been used to raise money to buy weapons for the attack.
Mr. Calvar did not respond to questions about the decision not to extend surveillance on the Kouachis. Jean-Marie Delarue, president of the three-member National Commission for the Control of Security Interceptions, which scrutinizes all demands for phone taps, said in an interview that Mr. Calvar and his deputy, Thierry Matta, were the only ones at the D.G.S.I. authorized to sign such requests.
The Kouachi brothers had been known to the authorities since 2004, when Syrian and American officials separately alerted their French counterparts to a Paris-based cell channeling French-born fighters through Syria to Iraq. A year later, Chérif Kouachi was arrested as he prepared to leave on a one-way ticket to become a suicide bomber in Iraq.
He spent 20 months in prison, where he met his future associate, Mr. Coulibaly, and mixed with convicted militants like Djamel Beghal, a jihadist who trained in one of Osama bin Laden’s camps in Afghanistan and was dispatched to France by the No. 3 of Al Qaeda, French prosecutors say, to set up a cell dedicated to targeting American interests.
For years, the Kouachi brothers drifted in and out of different forms of surveillance and, in Chérif’s case, detention. But in November 2011, when American officials informed their French counterparts that Saïd Kouachi had flown to Oman and traveled in Yemen “for a couple of months” that summer, the alert level rose. (One senior European intelligence official said the trip lasted from July 25 to Aug. 10.)
“You can’t follow everyone,” said Bernard Squarcini, left, the domestic intelligence chief when the Kouachis were put under surveillance. They slipped down the priority list under his successor. Patrick Calvar, right. Credit From left: Martin Bureau/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images; Silvere Gerard/Reservoir Photo
The information the Americans passed along had come from Yemeni intelligence and law enforcement agencies, which suspected that Mr. Kouachi had met with local Qaeda handlers, according to two senior American officials briefed on confidential reports, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the continuing investigation.
It was possible, the Yemenis told the Americans, that Mr. Kouachi had received training. The information was enough for Washington to place the older Kouachi on a no-fly list and other counterterrorism lists around November 2011. The French were informed and placed both Kouachis under surveillance, Mr. Squarcini said.
At the time, neither American nor Yemeni officials knew that it was actually Chérif Kouachi who had been in Yemen, traveling on his older brother’s passport because he remained under judicial supervision and was not allowed to leave France.
The officials also did not know that in Yemen, Chérif had been in contact with Mr. Awlaki, who that September became the first American citizen to be killed by a drone.
But early on, the French authorities were aware that Peter Cherif was in Yemen at the same time as Mr. Kouachi. Anyone like Mr. Cherif with past links to Mr. Zarqawi, even indirectly, was considered a serious concern, said Louis Caprioli, the deputy head of France’s domestic antiterrorism unit from 1998 to 2004.
In early 2012, after United States counterterrorism officials had done more analysis on Saïd Kouachi and discovered Chérif’s record in France, Chérif was added to the same American no-fly and counterterrorism lists. Again, the French were informed.
But both Kouachis gradually slipped down the priority list as the authorities scrambled to deal with the largely unforeseen effects of the civil war in Syria and the rise of the Islamic State. The number of French fighters returning from Syria was climbing rapidly: Some 1,400 people in France are believed to have either joined the jihadist cause in Syria and Iraq or sought to do so.
By law, the domestic surveillance powers of French intelligence agencies are limited. Wiretaps are still governed by rules drafted in 1991, long before cellphones and the Internet became ubiquitous. French intelligence agencies cannot legally track cars or bug apartments in their own country. Since 2006, they have had some access to the metadata of electronic communications, but they cannot spy on the content of emails.
But all along, there had been an alternative means of tracking the Kouachis. The judicial system has long been active in counterterrorism and has considerable flexibility to open investigations into anyone suspected of potentially carrying out a terrorist act.
Mr. Trévidic, the chief terrorism investigator in the judicial system, said if the domestic intelligence agency had wanted to turn the case of the Kouachis over to him, it probably could have. Since the Merah case in 2012, twice as many terrorism cases have been transferred from the intelligence services to become judicial investigations, he said.
“The tools are there,” said François Heisbourg, a former defense official and counterterrorism expert. “But the authorities did not bring all their tools to bear on people who had exactly the profile they said they were worried about.”
Katrin Bennhold reported from Paris, and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Aurelien Breeden and Laure Fourquet contributed reporting from Paris.
By KATRIN BENNHOLD and ERIC SCHMITTFEB. 17, 2015
© 2015 The New York Times Company