The terrorist drama that took the lives of 17 innocent people over 55 hours in Paris this week may force French officials to face tough questions about the way its intelligence agencies interact with one another.
With the French comparing the events of the last few days – the deadliest spate of terrorism in the country in more than 50 years – to the 9/11 attacks in the United States, French officials must confront a question similar to that American officials faced in 2001: How had a vast national security apparatus failed to head off a plot that had been hatched seemingly under the very noses of the organizations charged with preventing such crimes?
Not only were the main suspects in Wednesday’s murders of 12 people at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo known jihadists, one of whom had been jailed and both of whom were on the U.S. no-fly list, but the newspaper was known to be a likely al Qaida target where police officers had been stationed to prevent an attack.
Yet French officials missed the plot.
Red flags were many. One of the men, Cherif Kouachi, had been jailed at least twice since 2005 as part of a widely reported Paris jihadist cell that funneled Islamist fighters to Iraq to battle U.S. troops there. The other, Said Kouachi, traveled to Yemen in 2011 to train alongside the group al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which by that time was known as al Qaida’s most dangerous wing.
French news reports have said Cherif Kouachi was known to have been mentored in prison by a notorious jihadist, Djamal Beghal, an Algerian-born French citizen who’d been imprisoned for a series of Paris bombings in the 1990s by the group Algerian GIA, which has since been reorganized as a branch of al Qaida in North Africa.
French officials will undoubtedly examine why those warning signs didn’t prompt action that would have prevented the attack and detected that a terrorist cell, including a third suspect, Amedy Coulibaly, had formed.
Insiders say the first answer to that question is the dysfunctional relationship between France’s external intelligence service, the Directorate General for External Security, or DGSE in its French initials, and the Directorate of Territorial Surveillance, or DST, which is responsible for internal security.
The difficulty of integrating the foreign intelligence responsibilities of the DGSE, which operates under a mandate similar to the CIA’s, with the internal law enforcement of the DST, which is similar to the American FBI, is a common problem for governments around the world. In the United States, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks brought to light that the CIA often failed to pass on crucial information to the FBI, which was unaware that known al Qaida associates had entered the United States on legally obtained visas.
“There historically has been some frictions between the French domestic and international intelligence services,” said a former U.S. intelligence official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “They’ve done things to embarrass the other in the past. Part of it is jurisdictional, and then there’s the phenomenon of intelligence versus law enforcement.”
The rivalry between the DGSE and the DST has grown increasingly bitter in recent years, according to multiple experts on the French intelligence services, including a former agent for the DGSE who agreed to speak but only anonymously because it would violate legal agreements he’d signed when he left French government service.
“The problem has always existed, like in any government, between international spies and domestic law enforcement, where there’s always a tension between building cases and collecting information,” he said in an interview.
The cases of Mohammed Merah and David Drugeon illustrate the rivalry between the agencies, he said.
In 2012, Merah, a French jihadist who’d trained in Afghanistan alongside Drugeon, another French national, went on a killing spree in the southern French city of Toulouse, killing seven people over three days before eventually being killed by a police sniper. Drugeon, who many intelligence officials think was originally recruited by the DGSE to inform on al Qaida operations and jihadist activities in France and Afghanistan, trained at camps in Afghanistan before moving to Syria, where he’s been specifically targeted by U.S. airstrikes on at least two occasions and is thought to still be alive.
“The Americans warned DGSE that Merah was on the move, and DGSE warned the DST and police to watch the guy, that he was very dangerous,” said the former French intelligence officer. “They, as you Americans would say, ‘dropped the ball’ and didn’t watch him at all, and seven people died.”
After that bureaucratic mix-up – which many governments would have kept secret because of the intelligence value and the embarrassment – the DGSE released a scathing parliamentary report on the failure of the domestic services to monitor Merah, a move that reportedly infuriated and embarrassed DST officials up and down the chain of command.
McClatchy confirmed the existence of that classified parliamentary report with three independent French government and media sources, all of whom verified the French former intelligence officer’s claim.
“This started a war between the French services, which barely liked each other to begin with,” the official said. When a McClatchy report on the U.S. efforts to kill Drugeon made his name public, “the DST decided to embarrass them back and leak information about Drugeon.”
That information portrayed Drugeon as a former DGSE asset who’d gone over to al Qaida.
A current French intelligence official, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, refused to be quoted on the incident except to say, “Like every country, France suffers from bureaucratic rivalries. Sometimes they are helpful and sometimes they are not.”