Paris attacks 'could happen again tomorrow', warns veteran anti-terror cop

Patrick Calvar spent 25 years of his policing career fighting terrorism. He was head of the French Interior Security Division between 2012 and 2017. On Friday, he told the special criminal court trying those suspected of complicity in the November 2015 Paris attacks that only invasive surveillance measures could reduce the terrorist threat to near zero.

The former head of the French Interior Security Division, Patrick Calvar, during his hearing on 17 December, 2021.
The former head of the French Interior Security Division, Patrick Calvar, during his hearing on 17 December, 2021. AFP - BENOIT PEYRUCQ

The question was posed by one of the lawyers representing the victims. "With what you know, what you can't prevent, could the same attacks happen tomorrow?"

"Yes," answered Calvar, bluntly and without hesitation.

Calvar is an impressive individual. Despite his 66 years and his steel-grey hair, he walks and talks like someone used to winning fights.

He listed the worst of the terrorist attacks carried out in Europe in the course of his career – Madrid, London, Belgium, Paris, Nice, Manchester – describing each atrocity as a defeat for those who work in counter-terrorism.

"The fact that we fail does not mean we don't try very hard. We are very dedicated people. And each failure makes us a little better because we learn from our mistakes," Calvar said.

Impossible Syrian situation

French efforts to combat Islamic terrorism in 2015, he explained, were divided between attempts to stop people heading off to join the Islamic State in Syria-Iraq, and the judicial and administrative tracking of those who returned.

None of it was easy.

Many of those who left Europe had double nationality, and two passports. Those returning could lose themselves in the human flood of refugees fleeing the war.

"If we insisted on the use of biometric passports," Calvar insisted, "Abdelhamid Abaaoud would have been arrested."

Abaaoud, a notorious figure in the ranks of Islamic State in Syria, had no difficulty in returning to his native Belgium to command and take part in the Paris attacks, despite being the most-wanted terrorist suspect in Europe at the time.

Security failures

None of the administrative controls, such as the so-called S-listing of suspects, or the Schengen Information System, had any impact. The French security services had no idea Abaaoud had returned.

According to Calvar, such fatal errors will continue until we install a biometric passport system at Europe's external and internal frontiers, and link every border post in real time to a shared central database.

"The price of additional security will be reduced personal liberty."

Asked to explain why he thought France had been chosen as a target, Calvar offered a lengthy analysis.

"For a long time," he explained, "we have had a problem with our relation to Islam, a failure to distinguish between Islamism and Islam."

"There has also been a deep identity crisis among young people from Morocan, Algerian or Tunisian backgrounds.

"I think Islamist terrorism springs from the conjunction of the idea of jihad and a profound problem within our society.

"There are people who despise us for what we are, for what we represent. France is an emblematic target, like the United States or Israel.

"And there is also the weight of the colonial legacy. You get Pakistani terrorists in England, Algerians here in France.

"It is an expression of pure hatred by professionals of violence who claim to love death as much as we love life."

Hearings resume on 4 January, 2022.

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