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France, intelligence, terrorism

French intelligence must be streamlined - Commission

President of the parliamentary commission Georges Fenech and rapporteur Sébastien Pietrasanta (l)
President of the parliamentary commission Georges Fenech and rapporteur Sébastien Pietrasanta (l) JOHN THYS / AFP

A French parliamentary commission of inquiry into the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks published a report recommending a fusion of the country's intelligence services. France currently has six different intelligence units answering to the interior, defense and economy ministries.

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The parliamentary commission created to “investigate the means used by the State to fight against terrorism since January 7, 2015” (the date of the Charlie Hebdo attacks) consisted of thirty people, headed by George Fenech, a lawmaker with Les Républicains.

The commission consisted of 30 lawmakers, 16 members of the ruling Socialist Party, 10 of the opposition center-right Républicains, and single representatives from left-wing parties.

The report is over 300 pages long, and based on about 200 hours of hearings with various people from France’s intelligence community and its full text will be published on the web site of the commission.

The main proposals include creating a new domestic intelligence agency working specifically in the suburbs with the task to monitor radical Islamists. It also promotes better coordination between existing intelligence and security agencies and the creation of a coordinating agency that directly reports to the Prime Minister.

The commission of inquiry was created after a period of relative calm. The last major terror attack before the Charlie Hebdo killings in 2015 took place twenty years earlier, when an Algerian terrorist group planted a series of seven bombs in Paris and Lyon killing eight people and wounding over a hundred.

“French political leaders, policy makers and members of parliament don't care about intelligence and security agencies,” charges Eric Denécé, director of the French Center for the Research of Intelligence (Centre Français sur le Renseignement Cf2R)”

“This is the difference with the UK or the USA. We didn't have a major organization as a reaction to [the terror attacks on the New York Trade Towers on] 9 – 11 [2001].

“The only reorganization was in 2008, when president Sarkozy was in charge, and he decided to merge the former counter intelligence agency, the DST with the domestic intelligence agency, the Renseignements Généraux.”

But, says Denécé, this merger did not lead to the expected result and did not result in smooth communication between the agencies concerned. “the new proposal by the commission tries to solve some of the problems coming from the reforms in 2008,” he says.

Apart from the lack of communication, there are other, structural problems, and some basic skills of field agents may be lacking.

“Both intelligence- and police services lack people with a good knowledge of Arabic, of Turkish, of Middle East languages,” says says Claude Moniquet, the director of the European Strategic and Intelligence Security Center, and himself a former French intelligence agent .

“And a good understanding of the culture of those communities and people is essential. This is clearly a problem, but of course you cannot change it overnight. Because even if you have hired the people you need, it will take two to five years to go from a recruit to a good intelligence officer. It takes time.”

Another proposal by the commission that could lead to preventing terrorism is the merging of various databases with personal data. But, says Denécé, that is no easy task.

“Sometimes these databases list small children. Or people who are deceased. Or there are inconsistencies in the ways the name of one individual is written.”

Moreover, he says, strict privacy laws in France prevent a smooth merging process of various databases containing personal information.

“It is not the same as the UK,” he says, pointing out that the use of databases, no matter how sophisticated “is no miracle weapon. We need more men and women in the field to gather the data, to engage in surveillance against terrorists. We will not find solutions by just merging the databases,” he says.

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