Suicidal mindset of terrorists requires total revamp of security schemes – fmr French intel boss

The string of terrorist attacks in Europe is making governments adapt – expanding police powers and toughening anti-terrorist laws. Will this help defend against future attacks? We ask former head of intelligence at the French External Security agency, Alain Juillet.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Alain Juillet, former head of intelligence at the French External Security agency. Welcome back to the show, it’s always great to have you as our guest. Mr. Juillet, France has ended its two-year state of emergency, imposed after the Paris attacks. But the country’s Interior Minister Gerard Collomb says the terror threat remains high. Why lift the emergency now when a threat is still high?

Alain Juillet: Due to democratic system in our country, some possibilities are not allowed for police. For instance, it’s impossible to search an apartment, search the premises in the evening or at night, which gives the terrorist a chance to prepare something, while being absolutely free from being called on by police. This is just a certain example, but there were some examples like this one when all the police said that it was necessary to change that. So during the last year, for the first time we used a state of emergency as a system, because with the emergency state it is possible to bypass the usual laws. But it wasn’t possible to follow on like that. Therefore, president Macron, prime minister, and minister of the interior, Mr. Collomb, decided to push and to publish a new law which allowed us to do what was possible in the state of emergency but not in the usual circumstances.

SS: Usually people are against that when their liberties are somehow curtailed. But recent polls suggest that major public supports the law. Are French people so scared of the terror threat that they are ready to give up their personal freedoms? Because it does seem like that.

AJ: Well, it is clear that the mindset of French people has changed. Four or five years ago the democratic process was seen as a protection of liberties, and no system could touch or reduce liberty of any kind. Now it’s different. People have understood through the terrorist attacks we suffered in France, as Bataclan, Nice and others, people now react by saying that it is necessary to take a good decision in order to protect ourselves. And therefore, they agree to reduce a little bit of liberty in order to give more efficiency to the police. And that’s a big change in the French mind. For the French it is really something unbelievable because ten or twenty years ago it was impossible at all. And now it’s a reality, people agree to see some changes. But, of course, it’s not possible to change everything, to withdraw or to reduce all the liberties. It is necessary to have balance.

SS: We all understand that this is happening. This law it’s a reaction to Bataclan, to Brussels, to other attacks that happened in Europe. But is it wise to give the state that much of authority? There is always a danger that terrorism will be used as an excuse to abuse power, we’ve seen this happen before.

AJ: Nobody can say we are using terrorism to change our laws. We change our laws because we are facing a problem. And once this problem is solved, probably, the government will reduce the scope.

SS: I want to talk about the terrorism itself and how it’s changed. It’s not about bombs anymore. Vehicles and knives are the new weapons we are facing, and they are much more difficult to detect. Moreover, one doesn’t need to be personally linked to a terrorist cell or attend a hate-preaching sect as all the destructive information is all over the internet. Will France’s new law be really effective in fighting this new brand of terrorism?

AJ: The terrorists have moved to another [kind of] attack, a much more individual attack, using cars and knives. That is to say, using tools which are very easy to get. To get a car is very easy, to get a truck and to use it is not a problem. To buy or to use your own knife is not a problem. Therefore, firstly, it’s much more difficult to control them - an individual is much more difficult to control than a group, obviously. Secondly, it’s much more difficult to control someone using common tools, than [someone] using special tools as AK-47 or others, such as explosives, which require buying them. And [buying them] is not easy.

SS: So Mr. Juillet, Why are all the latest terrorist attacks suicidal? Why don’t the terrorist want to escape anymore, like they did in the past? More importantly, how do you find someone who is not afraid of dying?

AJ: At the beginning, it was a big problem. As you know, you can organize the security of a site or a person when the attackers are clearly attacking but they don’t want to be killed. Now when a man or a woman who attacks decided they would die in the operation, it’s much more difficult to block them because they can bypass all the controls. Therefore, it’s necessary to change the mindset of the police and to organize security not in exactly the same [way]. We have to take into account that they are ready to go very quickly down to the end of the story. And so we have to be prepared for it by building systems and barriers against them, which are more efficient in such a case. At the beginning, we were not prepared for it. But now with the experience from the last attacks, I think that at least in France we are more or less ready for it. But, we have to face the reality. It’s quite impossible to block everybody committing this kind of attacks.

SS: The terrorists, in the past, they used to want something. They were fighting for a cause - the liberation of Palestine, Irish reunification, Basque independence - and now what do they want? It seems like they don’t demand anything anymore, just kill people for the sake of killing, what’s behind that?

AJ: I think that among the individuals attacking in France there are many people that are against everything, and that are fed up with our civilization, our way of living and our behavior. They are convinced that it’s impossible to work in such a country, and it’s better to die killing a lot of non-Islamic people. This is the mindset of this kind of people. Now, other people are coming back. They are fighters, who retired from Syria, and their families, who are coming back. They had to stop [combatting] in Syria and Iraq because there is no more war, so they come back to our countries. These people are much more dangerous - they are fighters, they fought a war, they know what the war is, how to use a rifle, a machine gun and so on. They’re warriors and they are more aggressive. So we will have to adapt ourselves now to this new category [of terrorists] aside the other one.

SS: Mr. Juillet, where will the ISIS fighters of European origin go after the so-called ‘caliphate’ is no more? Do they pose a real danger if they return?

AJ: Yes, absolutely. It’s a big danger. Because these people are warriors, that is to say, they’ve been trained to fight, to make war, in Iraq or Syria. And when they come back, they come back with the experience of war. Therefore, they can use other tools than the usual individual terrorists we face in France.

SS: What do you think should happen to those trained terrorist warriors? Should ISIS returnees be locked up or sent to some kind of a rehab programme? What do you do with them, you can’t just kill them.

AJ: It’s difficult to know what will happen to these people in the future. If you take the experience of any other war worldwide, it appears that when the warriors or the fighters come back their own countries part of them stop [fighting], stop everything, and they keep this part of their life as a memory. But others are still [invested] in the idea of fight.

SS: Let’s imagine you are in charge of France’s security right now. This is a problem that France, along with other European countries, is going to face. The other half of the warriors, who are back and don’t want to keep this part of their life as a memory, are going to somehow continue fighting this war. What would you do? What measures would you undertake?

AJ: As you know, the French government have said that all the warriors and their families, their wives, coming back to France will be detained by the police and judged according to justice. [This is] in order to control if they are clean, if they are a danger, if they want to stop fighting, as we said before. The main problem is still in the children. It’s necessary to change their mind, and it will be a very difficult issue.

SS: The EU is getting tough on online extremism - in Germany internet providers face very heavy fines if extremist content isn’t removed within 24 hours after being flagged. Yet European Security Commissioner Julian King says while tens of thousands of pieces of extremist material being removed, hundreds of thousands are being posted. How can you make technology move faster than terrorism?

AJ: First of all, the police in all the continental Europe and in the EU are now working very tightly against terrorism. We control a lot of terrorism, much more than people think. We control terrorism, we identify what the real dangers. We have information and we get information. We are not in the same situation as five or ten years ago, now we know very well what happens, and we have information coming from the system. Now the problem is to adapt ourselves to permanent evolution.

SS: After the attacks in Brussels, the city’s former mayor told me that a pan-European “FBI” type of structure is needed to effectively combat terrorism in the Union. Do you think that’s a possibility? Will EU members give up that much sovereignty for the sake of security? After all, they ask us to give up on liberties for the sake of safety…

AJ: We have created a commission on the European level which is able to push everybody to work together in a more efficient way than before. We improve the system day to day, that is clear. Now, for the future the problem will be that in some countries people don’t react to terrorism the same way we do. And for an obvious reason. They didn’t face terrorism in their area for a long time. Therefore, they are not scared by terrorism as the population of the Southern and Central European countries, because in this area we suffer terrorism acts all the time. It’s not the same.

SS: After the recent terror attack in New York, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere has called for tighter security co-operation between the USA and Europe. But every time something terrible like that happens we hear leaders citing the necessity of closer co-operation. Is this just a regular cliche or is the level of international co-operation still insufficient after all these horrible incidents? Why?

AJ: It is clear that there is real relationship between police and services in Europe. And also we try to work our best with the Americans, because they have a lot of information. In the fight against terrorism information intelligence is a key to success. If you don’t have a good level of intelligence you cannot win against terrorism. In order to get this chance it is necessary to work altogether, exchange data and give information between the sides, so that we can build something serious and be able to help everybody to fight.

SS: What do you do when you don’t want join your intel service with the German one, and that’s all good since the French intelligence is good enough, but smaller countries in the EU have less capabilities, how do you work around these weak links?

AJ: Against terrorism all the services work together - the police from different countries work together. Everybody is trying to find the best solution in order to avoid problems in their own country, but also to help other countries. That’s very clear. On this point there is no problem at all - there is real, real partnership between everybody. Now, some countries are more adapted than others, they have more information than others, for many reasons. It is necessary to collect all the data, to exchange data but at the same time to take into account that no one is at the same level of efficiency. But each one is doing their best.

SS: Europol’s co-operation with Russian intelligence services on counter-terrorism is very limited, it’s limited to threat assessment. There’s no operational agreement between the two sides because of the Ukraine crisis and sanctions against Russia. But the Russians have quite a bit of intelligence that could be really helpful - it had info on the Tsarnaev brothers for instance - and its Central Asian expertise is needed, since the latest attackers were from there. I mean, Russia and the EU may not see eye to eye on a wide range of issues, but won’t the EU be better off teaming up with Russia on this particular issue?

AJ: Our president, president Macron, explained that it’s not because we disagree on some points with Russia, that we have to burn all the bridges with Russia. It is clear that, for instance, against terrorism we have to work altogether, because it’s common interest. And as I said before, when you speak about intelligence, some countries, by experience, by culture or by organization, have much more information than others. It is clear that, for instance, from Central Asia, the North of the Middle East, the Caucasian area Russia have a lot of information. And it’s interesting to exchange with them. And same way, we can give them information as well. The exchange on these issues between Russia and the others is a reality. On political issues we can be fully cut and separated, that’s clear.

SS: That’s exactly my question. You don’t have to be eye to eye on political issue but that doesn’t exclude real co-operation on terrorism.

AJ: Yes, absolutely.

SS: And like you said, what comes in the way of Russia and Europe exchanging information? Why isn’t this exchange happening?

AJ: We don’t know exactly what the level of exchange is between Russia and the European countries on these issues. But on my part, I am sure there is a lot of exchange.

SS: The CIA warned Spain about the Barcelona attacks. The FBI knew about the Boston bombers. European intelligence knew about those who attacked in Brussels and Paris. Yet the attacks couldn’t be prevented. Having the right intelligence is obviously not enough, so what’s missing here?

AJ: A lot of attacks are stopped beforehand. These attacks are never mentioned. From the police, the services organization nobody knows that. So, why are some attacks made and why do they succeed? We have to be honest - it’s impossible to stop everything. If something is made by someone who decided in the morning that he would attack at mid-day with a knife, it’s impossible to stop it. The only thing we can do is putting barriers in order to minimize victims. We have to be realistic. It is necessary to be very realistic. It’s impossible to avoid everything, that is clear. But on the other hand, it is necessary to fight all the time in order to achieve this goal of stopping terrorism. Altogether.

SS: Mr. Juillet, thank you very much for this interview. We were talking with Alain Juillet, former head of intelligence at the French External Security agency, about the menace of terror and ways to contain it. That’s it for this edition of SophieCo, see you next time.