Europe's antiterrorism agencies favor human intelligence over technology
PARIS -- The tip from Spain was only a vague warning. But it was enough for France's domestic intelligence agents to go to work, tapping phones, tailing suspects and squeezing informants. Before long, they rolled up a group of Muslim men in a provincial French town who, beneath a tranquil surface, were drawing up al-Qaeda-inspired plans to set off a bomb in the Paris subway.
The plot, described by a source with firsthand information, was one of 15 planned terrorist attacks by jihadist cells in France that have been thwarted in recent years, according to a count by the Central Directorate of Internal Intelligence (DCRI), France's main antiterrorism force. One was a bomb plot directed against the directorate's own headquarters.
The antiterrorism policing -- it is a not a "war," specialists here emphasized -- has been conducted for the most part in the dark, and in a style that sets France and other European countries apart from the United States. As U.S. officials seek to understand what may have led a Pakistani immigrant to try to blow up Times Square, and how he boarded an airplane at John F. Kennedy International Airport despite multiple computerized watch lists, Europe's specialists have pointed to their own approach as an example of how to proceed.
"You have got to be proactive," said Jean-Louis Bruguière, who as an investigating magistrate handled many of France's major antiterrorism cases and now is a liaison to the U.S. Treasury Department on terrorist financing. "It is not a question of defense."
From the beginning, Bruguière and other specialists said, the emphasis in Europe has been on domestic human intelligence rather than the computerized systems such as watch lists favored by U.S. security agencies. That has meant tedious hours of surveillance, patient listening-in on telephone conversations, careful review of bank records, and relentless recruitment of informants among Islamic zealots who are motivated to betray acquaintances by everything from fear of losing visas to a desire to clear the name of Islam in European minds.
A DCRI field agent, interviewed recently on France 2 television under restricted conditions with his face blurred out, said all 15 of the terrorist plots stopped recently in France were uncovered because of information received from human sources, recruited among a Muslim population estimated at more than 5 million.
"In the shadows, we put into place -- for months, sometimes years -- detection systems, surveillance arrangements that allow us to act at the right moment," Bernard Squarcini, until recently the DCRI director, said in an interview with Le Point magazine. "Our obsession is to anticipate, that is, to neutralize terrorists before they strike."
Police in some U.S. cities, most notably New York and Los Angeles, have extensive and sophisticated programs to engage with communities and infiltrate potentially dangerous groups. But Lee H. Hamilton, who co-chaired the 9/11 Commission, said U.S. human intelligence efforts must be "greatly expanded and refined" to tackle the increasing threat of homegrown terrorism.
"You have to have people who go into a specific community, an ethnic group, religious group, a sectarian group, get acquainted with their people, their leaders, and get to know their community," Hamilton said in an interview. "Those communities know, usually, the people within the community that are disaffected, mad, angry, maybe even threatening."
In France, to pressure for more information and keep would-be terrorists off balance, the specialists said, police and domestic intelligence officers carry out frequent raids, taking young Muslim men into custody for interrogation and intimidation. That treatment extends to Islamic groups that may never imagine carrying out a terrorist attack but eventually could help with logistics, even unwittingly, or just hear about someone with violent plans.
"They are constantly bothered," said Xavier Raufer, a veteran terrorism expert who heads the Criminology Institute at the University of Paris II. "The most fragile of them are singled out, contacted and eventually flipped."
About three dozen people have been sentenced to prison over the last three years in connection with antiterrorism raids, many of them under a broad-gauge law that defines as a crime "criminal association with intent to commit terrorism," according to a recent Interior Ministry report.