France braces for lone wolf terrorist attacks
PARIS - As the Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks in Kuwait and Tunisia, French investigators were scrambling to find out whether the grisly beheading of a French entrepreneur near Lyon and the attempt to blow up a sensitive US-owned chemical factory was linked to an organised group.
The alternative — that it was an act by a “lone wolf” — sent chills down the spines of French officials as such attacks are much more difficult to predict and prevent. Though the attacker shouted “Allahu Akbar” — “God is great” — and hung black flags similar to those of ISIS next to the severed head of his employer, the attack may have been triggered partly by personal motives in that the suspect had quarrelled with his boss and wife shortly before carrying out the crime.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve warned the country was not only threatened by jihadists returning to France from abroad but also by people who had never left the country and were inspired by ISIS propaganda and calls for action on the internet.
The suspect in the attack, Yassin Salhi, had no previous criminal record. Yet the 35-year-old father of three allegedly beheaded his employer, Hervé Cornara, 54, before his van was rammed into a chemical factory, to which Salhi had access clearance as a delivery man. The suspect was overpowered as he tried to set acetone bottles on fire while shouting “Allahu Akbar”.
Whatever his motives were, the modus operandi of the suspect, who is said to have confessed to the crimes, struck fear in the media and public. The acts qualify as terrorism according to French criminal law. The killer placed Cornara’s head on the gates of the plant with two flags bearing references to the shahada, the Muslim profession of faith. Moreover, Salhi supposedly sent selfies, showing him next to the severed head, to a man believed to be in Syria. The man, identified as French citizen Sebastien Younes, apparently left France last year to join jihadi groups.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned his country was facing a major threat that needed to be fought over the long term, adding that the question was not whether there would be another attack, but when and where.
France is indeed vulnerable due to its high profile in the fight against ISIS, where it is engaged in both Iraq and the Sahel. More worryingly, French citizens have departed by the hundreds to join jihadi ranks in Syria and Iraq. Some have returned to France with newly acquired skills from the battlefield. Figures vary according to experts, but in Europe, France is cited to have the highest number of recruits to have left for Syria or Iraq.
The June 26th attack raised troubling questions on the way France is fighting its internal terrorist threat.
Salhi had been on and off a French security watch list since 2006 for his links to a French thug known as Le Grand Ali who converted to Islam in jail, and again in 2011 for his ties to Salafist circles around Lyon. He was dropped from the watch list as he had no direct ties to potential terrorist suspects.
This was not the first time French security agencies dropped suspects from an active watch list only to have them later carry out terrorist acts. This was the case in 2012 when Mohammed Merah killed three children at a Jewish school and four adults, including two French soldiers of Moroccan and Algerian origin.
The problem lies partly in the lack of personnel to monitor the thousands of potential security threats. A suspect is dropped from a watch list when nothing suspicious has been noted for a few months. It takes 25-30 agents to launch a proper surveillance operation of any given suspect.
Observers point out that it is impossible to identify every potential individual threat with no operational or organisational link to a group and who therefore does not fit a typical terrorist profile. The very efficient propaganda of jihadist web sites is sometimes enough to inspire individuals. At the start of Ramadan, a spokesman for ISIS called on Muslims to carry out attacks. A few days later, the attacks of Tunisia, Kuwait and France took place.
For now, French authorities have stepped up security measures at Seveso sites, named after EU legislation dealing with onshore accident hazards involving dangerous substances.
Following the jihadi attacks against the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine and a Jewish grocery store that left 17 people dead in January, France has adopted a new intelligence law that makes it easier for large-scale electronic surveillance to be conducted. French citizens deemed to be suspicious are prevented from travelling abroad and their passports are seized.