Source: Washington Post

PARIS — On Tuesday, French lawmakers announced the results of a six-month inquiry into their nation’s intelligence services, still reeling from two deadly terrorist attacks in 2015. The committee’s major recommendation: create a unified intelligence structure better equipped to prevent future attacks.

In January 2015, extremists attacked the editorial offices of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo and, two days later, a kosher supermarket on the outskirts of Paris. On Nov. 13, 2015, militants with ties to the Islamic State killed 130 in coordinated attacks on a stadium, a concert hall and cafes across the city — the bloodiest attack on French soil since World War II.

In both cases, the inquiry’s leaders acknowledged Tuesday, the perpetrators were previously known to authorities. Some were under judicial surveillance at the time of the attacks, while others had prior convictions.

Regardless of previous track records of terrorist activity, in the aftermath of the November attacks, one of the known suspects, Salah Abdeslam, managed to elude both French and Belgian authorities for four months before he was arrested in a shootout that authorities think was among the triggers for the March 22 attacks on the Brussels subway and airport.

In April, Abdeslam, a French citizen who had been living in Belgium, was extradited to France, where he has since refused to answer any questions put to him by French judges. The full extent of his involvement in the November attacks remains unclear.

Georges Fenech, a conservative member of France’s National Assembly who spearheaded the inquiry, placed the bulk of the blame on what he called France’s overly complicated intelligence apparatus, an overlapping structure of various agencies that are not always in contact with one another.

“We could have avoided the attack of the Bataclan if there had not been these failures,” he told reporters, referring to the Paris concert hall where the bulk of the casualties in the November attacks occurred.

Along with a colleague, Sébastien Pietrasanta, a Socialist, Fenech advocated the creation of a singular intelligence structure that would resemble MI5 in Britain or the National Counterterrorism Center in the United States, which the inquiry commission visited in the course of their investigation.

The committee reportedly interviewed approximately 200 people in France, Belgium, the United States, Turkey and Greece, among other places. In addition to streamlining the intelligence-gathering process, another of its principal proposals sought to prevent those with terrorism convictions from receiving reduced sentences. 

But intelligence analysts here were uncertain as to the actual effect another intelligence agency would have, even a more unified one. They underscored that a new, streamlined agency would not necessarily eliminate existing ones.

“This new entity that they want to place near the prime minister, it’s just another coordinating body,” Jean-Charles Brisard, director of the French Center for the Analysis of Terrorism, said in an interview. “Probably we have reached in France a point where we have more coordinating bodies than we have intelligence services.”

“We are facing a threat that has never been met in size, in terms of numbers in Iraq and Syria but also in terms of sympathizers in France,” he said. “What we need more than the centralization and specialization of our intelligence is the capability to detect very early the stages and signs of radicalization at the local level.”

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls recently announced his plan to develop a network of “anti-jihadist rehabilitation centers” that would seek to curb youth involvement in terrorist cells. A majority of the assailants in the 2015 attacks were young men who were either French or European Union citizens.

The first of the centers is slated to open by the end of the summer, according to the French Interior Ministry.

France remains in an official “state of emergency” following the attacks of 2015. As recently as last month, an attacker inspired by the Islamic State fatally stabbed a police officer and his partner in a Paris suburb before he was killed by police.

Extra security precautions have been taken during the past month, during which the 2016 Euro soccer tournament has been played at 10 different cities across the country. The tournament ends July 10.

James McAuley

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