There are thousands of jihadists in EU, our spy agencies are unable to watch them – Intelligence vet

The terrorist attacks in Paris, just months after the Charlie Hebdo bloodshed, may have finally woken the West up to the reality of terror. Despite all the technological advances, all the new surveillance methods that the Western governments so eagerly took up under the pretext of “security” and safety of their people, have proved useless against extremists. But why all these prized intelligence agencies fail to stop the jihadists? And how should Europe tackle the incoming refugee waves – will the politicians of the EU open the doors for those in need, or shut them out, wary of the possible Islamist infiltration through the borders? Finally, what is the goal that ISIS pursues when launching these attacks? We ask these questions to a former French intelligence officer. Alain Rodier is on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Alain Rodier, thank you for joining us. Now we know for sure that the Russian airplane that crashed over Sinai was destroyed by ISIS. We’ve seen attacks against Russia, France, Lebanon – all in a very short period of time.  Has ISIS managed to outmaneuver national security services?

AR: Yes, we see ISIL changing its strategy. Up until now they were focusing on things in Syria and Iraq. They wanted to establish their so-called “Islamic state” on those territories - with some “provinces” abroad – in Libya, Sinai, the Caucasus and Afghanistan. But things have changed. ISIL is no longer winning. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that they are starting to lose in Syria and Iraq, but they are experiencing certain difficulties, that’s for sure. And in order to return to the centre stage, ISIL is changing its tactics and has begun to organize major terrorist attacks, the first one being the attack on the Russian Airbus.   

SS:So instead of bringing their followers to Syria they tell them to stay in Europe and be ready to strike at any moment?

AR: Not quite. This is the first precedent. It was not European followers. It was an ISIL unit from Syria that came to Europe to carry out the attack. This is a very rare case, because usually such things are done by rogue wolves, who are in Europe and act on their own accord. Usually they are not very professional, because they were not trained. But an ISIL unit that was trained in Syria, unfortunately, is a lot more effective – we all witnessed that.

SS:I am asking, because Abu Khaled – a former ISIS fighter, who says he was part of Islamic State security services - he is saying that ISIS is changing tactics, that the war is now west-bound and that ISIS is asking its followers to form sleeper cells Europe in order to attack Europe and the Western world.

AR: This is a bit of an exaggeration. Because what are ISIL's policies towards migrants? They are against migration. ISIL wants people living on their territories to stay put, because Islamists in Syria and Iraq need them to run their state. ISIL also claims that every Muslim not living in Islamic State territories, especially if they live in Europe, has to join Islamic State. There is a contradiction there. But ISIL is also interested in moving the war that is happening in Syria and Iraq to Europe, because this would allow the Islamists to relieve the pressure they are beginning to feel in Syria and Iraq.

SS:President Hollande said that France is at war, because it was attacked. If France is at war, does it mean that NATO is also at war? Poland, Turkey, Lithuania… After 9/11, for example, NATO countries started a joint operation in Afghanistan. Could something like that happen in this case?  

AR: Not at this point. But President Hollande asked the European Union to help France. We cannot fight everywhere. We are fighting in Sahel, for example, and it is a very important operation. We need more support, because up until now Europeans have been indecisive about providing the help that we need in Sahel. That is where the real battlefield is, our boots on the ground, whereas a ground operation in Syria and Iraq is out of the question. But we will intensify our air strikes.

SS:Do you think that intensifying the bombing campaign is enough?

AR: Air strikes alone have never led to winning any war. The only exception was the bombings of Japan during the Second World War. But this was a special case. I do not think we will use nuclear weapons. Thus, airstrikes alone will not solve the problem. We need a ground operation. However, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should serve as a lesson to us: we cannot send Western ground troops there, because in the future we will be perceived as occupants.

SS:So what do you do – if airstrikes are not enough, and sending ground troops is not an option?

AR: It is necessary to use those forces which are already involved on the ground. They are out there, but there is also a political problem.

SS:What are these forces?

AR: The Iraqi army, the Iraqi militia, the Iraqi Kurds, the Peshmerga, the Syrian Kurds, close, say, to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, as well as the Syrian army and the Syrian militia. It is here that we face a problem of a political nature, since France has so far been insisting on the resignation of Assad as a prerequisite for launching the political process. It seems that this prerequisite has already receded into the background; the main enemy is now ISIL. The issue of Bashar al-Assad will be resolved later. I think that we are moving towards using the local forces.

SS:But all those forces you mentioned, except for Peshmerga, proved to be ineffective: the Iraqi army, the Syrian militia, the Iraqi militia – they’re not an effective force in the fight against terrorists. Otherwise, they would have been able to achieve results.

AR: Yes, but until recently they have been without support. The Russian Air Force is now directly helping the Syrian army, which is now on the offensive. We don’t often talk about it, but it's true. An example: there’s currently a battle going on in the region of Aleppo. And the Syrian army is on its way to winning this battle – gradually, very slowly, but still. This victory will not be achieved overnight - a battle always takes some time. And it is here that the Syrian army can defeat the so-called Islamic State. I also believe that the Syrian army is now capable of winning back Palmyra. And it will be extremely significant. However, they would never be able to do that without the support of the Russian Air Force. That's what I mean. If the Russians will continue to assist the Syrian army, if the Americans continue, as it is believed, to support the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Syrian Kurds, then the Syrian Kurds may take Raqqa; now that they are only 80 kilometers away from it

SS:I’ve spoken to a researcher who spent some time among former and active jihadists in Syria and Iraq. He thinks that ISIS is trying to provoke the West into a military response and get it involved in a full-scale war. Do you think these horrible terrorist attacks were organized with the goal of pulling the Western countries into a war?

AR: Yes, the simple thing about ISIL is that they always tell us what they will do and they speak their mind. They said, “We want American soldiers here”. It is their dream to get more prisoners, it is obvious. Then they would start their propaganda mechanism, torturing the prisoners. This is something they really want. They need combat on the ground, which they could later broadcast. A little off topic, but I watched a video showing how close to the ground Russian jets fly, and this concerns me.  Thank God none of them have been downed yet, but they fly at an altitude where even infantry weapons could reach them. I cannot even imagine what would happen if a Russian jet ended up in the hands of those ISIL savages. So there are already risks for Russians and Americans there, but the Americans bomb their targets from a higher altitude.  

SS:The Anonymous hacker community has announced a cyber-war against ISIS. So far authorities have not been able to curb ISIS social media activity. Could groups like Anonymous be effective? Should governments ask hacker groups for help?

AR: Indeed ... It's very difficult to say. In France we had some of their websites blocked. By the way, I can tell you that, although it may inflict damage on the terrorists, such measures also harm scientists like myself. A number of websites that I have visited to learn about their statements - because in order to understand their actions you have to know what they say - are now blocked by the French Interior Ministry, and we can no longer visit them. So this war is indeed going on; However, unfortunately, it is almost impossible to completely block the IS propaganda. They are very competent in this field, they are hiring professionals to do it. 

SS:Western ones?

AR: Looks like it. In fact, there was a Brit with them, who was recently killed, by the way, with the help of a British drone in the course of an operation to neutralize him.

He was an IT expert and published a lot of things. Thus, they have experts; and technology will allow them to continue their activities and, moreover, they are very professional in their information policies. They have realized that the Western world and the Western youth are very attached to the style of Hollywood. So they show us Hollywood, but with a bloody tinge.

SS:After 9/11, Americans passed the Patriot Act, limiting civil liberties for the sake of national security. Could France do the same? Does it need to do something like that?

AR: Let me remind you – we’ve declared a state of emergency, which will last for three months. The state of emergency gives additional powers to the authorities who can make very important decisions. This is the French version of the Patriot Act.

SS:France can declare a state of emergency, but if those who organized the terrorist attacks in France came from Belgium, if they move freely to Belgium or another neighboring country, what good would state of emergency do?

AR: It would help France, but like I said France will ask all European countries for support, because France was attacked.

SS:What do you mean by support?

AR: A lot can be done. Take transportation, for example. Moving our troops is becoming difficult. Our jets are getting outdated. By the way, we have to buy 4 Lockheed C-130 Hercules planes from the USA urgently, because we don’t have enough aircraft to continue our operations in Sahel.
So the European forces will have to be more active than before. We will strengthen our anti-terrorism cooperation. We worked together before, but now we will intensify our joint efforts. As far as our Belgian friends are concerned, I will not do any Belgium bashing, so to speak, because we are long time partners, and it’s been a great partnership for a number of years. We have great communication, and not just between our police forces and intelligence services, but also in the judicial area. For example, we do not extradite French citizens. But Nemmouche, the person who attacked the Jewish Museum in Brussels, was arrested in Marseille and sent to Belgium to face prosecution.

SS:Well, if you have such a high level of cooperation with Belgium ... In the case of the Paris attacks, one of the terrorists worked in a bar in Brussels, in the Molenbeek neighborhood.  Speaking about terror attacks in Europe, Belgium's Prime Minister has said that ‘almost every time there’s a link with Molenbeek’ - how is this possible - the place is just miles away from the headquarters of the European Union? Why are radicals allowed to just roam there freely?

AR: In defense of our Belgian friends I can say that their services work well, but unfortunately, their capacity corresponds to the size of the country: they do not have enough people, they don’t have the best means at their disposal. I think that it is necessary to help them, to reinforce them in terms of equipment and resources. No doubt, they will accept help from all of their neighbors.
Why is Belgium always at the center of all such events? Even if we go as far back as 30 years ago, when terrorist attacks were carried out by the extreme left?
The reason is that, even back then, Belgium was the crossing point for terrorist groups, the Red Army Faction, etc.
The fact is that the geographical location of Belgium makes it basically a crossroads. And we need to help our Belgian friends to control the situation to a greater degree, especially in the Molenbeek area. It is similar to the outskirts of Toulouse, where some very dangerous organizations operate. Mohamed Mera, for example, was from Toulouse, from those very neighborhoods.

Molenbeek is similar to a number of French city outskirts.

SS: What should French intelligence  be doing about this? As far as I know, the French security services were keeping tabs on the people who attacked Charlie Hebdo.They were surveilled, but despite this, they still carried out their attacks. What’s the point of all that surveillance then?

AR: The police knew about them, but was not following them. There is a difference between "knowing" and "following". Earlier we talked about the problems of the past and the situation we faced with the ultra-left-wing terrorists. There were dozens of suspects then. It took about ten years to close the case. The numbers of police and security personnel have not increased ten or a hundred times since then. As for the Islamists, there are a hundred times more of them than those suspected to be in the ranks of the extreme left all those years ago. So you can understand that we are talking about an emergency situation for the security services. They successfully followed, say, from ten to thirty people at that time; now there are thousands of them.

SS:Turkey says it warned Paris twice in the past year about one of the suicide bombers in the attacks - the AP reported a senior french security official saying that French intelligence receives such warnings all the time and every day. So there’s no way to keep suspects in check?

AR: Intelligence is a gigantic puzzle. It’s a common problem for all security services. Take the 9/11 attacks - Americans had some fragments of the puzzle, they knew some of the people who were preparing attacks, the French intelligence passed information on people who were taking piloting classes in France, for example. But only when the attack happened they were able to grasp the full picture. The situation is the same in all countries, only when the attacks take place, when the perpetrators are arrested it is possible to understand how it happened.

SS:One of the attackers had a Syrian passport and supposedly has entered Europe in Greece, as a refugee. Now the Serbian police said they arrested a man carrying an identical passport - implying both are fake. Thousands of migrants and refugees arrive in Europe every day - how do you filter out the terrorists?

AR: I am always trying to imagine myself in the enemy’s shoes - to understand what he would do. If I were a terrorist leader and was investing money into people to carry out attacks - would i risk it all and have an attacker board a shabby boat and maybe drown on the way to Greece? When I could just buy him a business class plane ticket? If I were a terrorist leader I wouldn’t send my supporters into Europe among migrants, because I could simply lose them. 

SS:I see where you’re coming from. But surely you can’t ignore the fact that there could be terrorists among the refugees?

AR: I don’t think so. On the contrary, here’s the thing: all the refugees that will be settled in Europe in the next 3, 4, 5 months - they won’t be exactly satisfied with their lives, since the conditions will be very difficult. And at that moment, there’s a real possibility that the extremists will be trying to recruit new terror cell members among those refugees. I don’t think there’s any preparation done by the terrorists before migrants arrive -  but in the future the extremist activists could use this resource for recruitment.

SS:So you don’t think new security measures should be introduced - concerning the refugees?

AR: Of course we should be asking questions, but we can’t stigmatize the refugees, that would be a mistake. I even think that this whole story with the Syrian passport -  ISIL wanted us to discover that passport. It was meant as a kind of poison, to confuse us, put us on a false trail. Maybe what we have here is a disinformation campaign by ISIL. Let’s not forget ISIL frowns upon immigration to Europe.

It would allow for this part of the population to be scapegoated and also create further social turbulence between Europeans and the migrants. I can’t say for sure that there will be no operation of some kind.

SS:But do you think Europe can accommodate all these migrants? The influx is massive.

AR: What else is there to do? We can’t send them back or sink their ships. In reality, we’re just trying to manage this wave, channel it as best as we can. They say that in 2-3 years the number of refugees will reach about 3 milllion. The only way to stop the influx of migrants coming to Europe is to win the war in Syria and Iraq, so people can stay in their countries or go back there. But here, we are the end of the line. We have to accept this wave..  

SS:Russia has offered a $50 million reward for information leading to the arrest of those responsible for downing a passenger plane over Egypt. Do you believe such measures can help capture terrorists?

AR: I think that offering a reward, which is something the US has been doing for a long time, is really effective. Money can significantly increase the potential informants’ motivation. The US has been doing this from the very beginning, just watch those Westerns. But now you can use the Internet. If you go to the Wanted for Justice website, you’ll see not only terrorists there, but ordinary criminals as well – and all have a price on their heads. It seems to be going well, otherwise the idea would have been abandoned long ago.

SS:After the terrorist attacks in Paris in January, the European Commission dismissed proposals to launch an EU-wide intelligence agency. In your opinion, will this issue be raised again now?

AR: Let’s be frank – we failed to forge a political union in Europe. And that’s a mistake. We’ve only focused on an economic union.  Then we raised the question of a common defense policy, and that was a fiasco - let’s just call what it is. And the latest proposal is a Europe built on intelligence - but every EU country wants to keep its own intelligence services, they think that will give them the upper hand, some trump cards to use during political meetings and sessions. So nobody will agree to a common intelligence agency. But a existing national intelligence agencies need better coordination, especially when it comes to major issues like  terrorism and organised crime.