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What France Does Best

From the March/April 2008 Issue

France is the world’s most sophisticated practitioner of counterterrorism. The U.S. can learn from her experience.

Counterterrorism, like espionage and covert action, isn’t a spectator sport. The more a country practices, the better it gets. France has become the most accomplished counterterrorist practitioner in Europe. Whereas September 11, 2001, was a shock to the American counterterrorist establishment, it wasn’t a révolution des mentalités in Paris. Two waves of terrorist attacks, the first in the mid-1980s and the second in the mid-1990s, have made France acutely aware of both state-supported Middle Eastern terrorism and freelancing but organized Islamic extremists.

In comparison, the security services in Great Britain and Germany were slow to awaken to the threat from homegrown radical Muslims. Britain’s gamble was that its multicultural approach to immigrants was superior to France’s forced-assimilation model. But with the discovery of one terrorist plot after another being planned by British Muslims, as well as the deadly transportation bombings that took place in London on July 7, 2005, the British have begun to question the wisdom of their “Londonistan” approach to Muslim immigration. Similarly, until recently, the belief in Berlin was that Germany was safe from homegrown Muslim terrorism; but two major bomb plots over the past year and a half—one aimed at German trains, the second at American installations and interests in Germany—have raised serious doubts in the minds of many German security officials about that previous assumption.

And French scholars and journalists have been way ahead of their European and American counterparts in dissecting Islamic extremism and in analyzing the phenomenon of European-raised Muslim militants. French officials who work in counterterrorism are well apprised of this intellectual spadework, often maintaining friendly relationships with scholars and journalists working in the field. The French interior ministry and prison system, for example, were remarkably helpful to the Franco-Iranian sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar in his interviews of jailed al-Qaeda members. Khosrokhavar’s book, Quand Al-Qaida parle: Témoignages derrière les barreaux (“When Al-Qaeda Speaks: Testimonies from Behind Bars”) is easily the most insightful look into the mind of Westernized members of al-Qaeda.

French counterterrorism officials are well apprised of the relevant intellectual spadework, often maintaining friendly relationships with scholars working in the field.

And consider the Marsaud Report, issued in 2005 by a special parliamentary commission charged with examining France’s counterterrorist capacities. It states well the general French view of the threat posed by radical Islamic terrorism and is perhaps the most cogent statement yet by a European governing body on why its citizens are inextricably involved in the fight against radical Islamic terrorism and unavoidably tied to the United States:

“The absence of Islamist attacks on French soil since 9/11 should not be misinterpreted: it does not signify at all that France has been immunized from such actions, notably because of its position on the Iraq conflict. Elsewhere, we have already indicated that terrorist cells have been taken apart [since 9/11]—cells which were planning attacks on our soil. Further, outside of our national territory, French targets were struck, like the May 8, 2002, attack in Karachi…or the attack against the oil tanker Limburg off of Yemen on October 6, 2002. France is an integral part of Western civilization, a target of radical Islamic terrorists. In this regard, she figures among the potential targets of these terrorists to the same extent as any other Western nation.”

Post-9/11, the CIA and the FBI decided to headquarter America’s premier European counterterrorist liaison shop in Paris because they recognized, despite the acrimony arising from the run-up to the Iraq war, that France was the European country most serious about counterterrorism.

What America Can Learn

Can America draw any lessons from France’s encounter with Islamic terrorism? The two countries have separate histories of interaction with the Muslim world and philosophical differences when it comes to legal systems and the role of the state domestically. But it is worth knowing how other democracies do things, particularly when what they do seems to work.

Counterterrorist personnel in the FBI, CIA, and National Security Council usually rotate out of the terrorism portfolio after a few years—a distinct disadvantage compared with the French system.

And something the French do—and perhaps the hardest thing for Americans to appreciate, let alone adopt—is to grant highly intrusive powers to their internal security service, the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST), and to their counterterrorist, investigative magistrates, the juges d’instruction. The latter institution is the lynchpin of France’s counterterrorist prowess, allowing the French to marry the powers of prevention, deterrence, and punishment under one man. These magistrates, who came into being after 1986, have no American parallel and in the powers they possess appear to be sui generis within Europe. They oversee and often direct the investigative potential of France’s myriad police services, especially the intelligence unit of the French national police, the Renseignements Généraux, and the DST.

This direction is exercised through a combination of administrative statutes and, just as important, informal relations. While the DST works primarily under the authority of the minister of interior, over the years a new cooperative relationship has evolved with the juges d’instruction. Because of the success of such magistrates as Jean-Louis Bruguière and Jean-François Ricard, who proved they could handle sensitive information collected by a domestic intelligence agency, the DST now works hand in glove with the magistrates and may even be directed by them in ongoing investigations.

These magistrates and their offices have become the repositories of counterterrorist information inside the French government. The advantage over the American system here is overwhelming: counterterrorist personnel in the FBI, CIA, Justice Department, and National Security Council usually rotate out of the terrorism portfolio after a few years. And few could be said to have monitored specific cases and particular Islamist organizations for years on end.

Also striking is the ability of the French to concentrate the resources of the state. From the use of wiretaps, to day-and-night physical surveillance, to “preventive detention” that can be directed against targets on whom authorities do not have sufficient evidence to seek criminal prosecution, magistrates and their allied police and intelligence services can rapidly monitor, harass, and paralyze those they suspect of terrorist activity. As the French government’s 2006 “White Paper” on domestic security and terrorism states, “To be effective, a judicial system for counterterrorism must combine a preventive element, whose objective is to prevent terrorists from acting, and a repressive element, to punish those who commit attacks as well as their organizers and accomplices. The French system follows this logic. But its originality and strength lie in the fact that the barrier between prevention and punishment is not airtight.” The juges have largely deconstructed this wall.

The French political and legal system doesn’t do debate easily; the American system does it sublimely well, if allowed to.

The French have other important counterterrorist offices, designed to provide coordination and direction to the various ministries and bureaus involved in counterterrorism. Perhaps the most important of these is the interior ministry’s Unité de Coordination de la Lutte Anti-terroriste (the Antiterrorist Coordination Unit), created in 1984. This office collects information supplied by the other agencies, including the interior and defense ministries, and the ministry of economy, finance, and industry.

None of these offices is uniquely French. And we certainly couldn’t conclude that they operate more efficiently than their American counterparts. Again, what sets France apart are its juges d’instruction and their ability to harness the country’s enormous police resources.

A Slippery Slope to Tyranny?

It is worthwhile mentioning a critical study of Franco-American counterterrorist relations commissioned by the policy-planning staff of the French foreign ministry. According to the study, France’s highly codified legal system, where the French state enjoys enormous powers of intrusion and coercion, does not marry well with America’s messier system of separated powers, judicial independence, and presumptive rights held by individuals against the government. The censure in the piece, which likely represents the views of the French elite, is more procedural than moral. America’s legal and political system, at least under George W. Bush, couldn’t handle such “extra-legal” challenges as Guantanamo, extraordinary rendition, or warrantless surveillance. According to the report’s authors, the United States got hoisted on its own petard by making the struggle against Islamic extremism into a highly politicized, militarily front-loaded “war on terror” that its legal and ethical system couldn’t handle.

To an extent, we agree with this critique. For example, we don’t think the Bush administration, with the CIA in the lead, effectively thought through the judicial and legal challenges it would encounter as it interrogated and imprisoned members and suspected members of al-Qaeda and other extremist Islamic groups. The stabilizing genius of American government is its open political system, where convulsive questions can be asked and debated, and bipartisan consensus can usually be found on serious matters of national security when a threat first materializes. The Bush administration, reflecting the desire of all presidents to protect executive privileges they deem necessary to wage war successfully, nevertheless got itself into a mess with aspects of the “war on terror” precisely because it didn’t allow politics to intervene early enough on the thorny, at times gut-wrenching, questions of how one should interrogate, imprison, and eliminate “enemy combatants.” The French political and legal system doesn’t do debate easily; the American system does it sublimely well, if allowed to.

Through the run-up to the Iraq war, which was perhaps the nadir of post-WWII Franco-American relations, Franco-American counterterrorist cooperation blossomed.

However, these issues which torment some of our allies are unlikely to affect our counterterrorist cooperation with Paris. Through the run-up to the Iraq war, which was perhaps the nadir of post–World War II Franco-American relations, Franco-American counterterrorist cooperation blossomed. In 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy, who openly admires much about the United States, was elected France’s president.

We also suspect that many in France, especially within its intelligence services, understand the unique challenges the United States confronted after 9/11, and still confronts today.

In the end, looking at the French and American approaches to counterterrorism provides an odd symmetry. In the case of France, the threat is largely, although not simply, one within the confines of its own borders. To meet that threat, the French are willing to give their officials what we would consider extraordinary powers and discretion. In the case of the United States, the terrorist threat comes largely, although not solely, from abroad. To meet that threat, President Bush has used his power as commander-in-chief to its fullest. And while his political opponents and a few judges criticize the use of that power, for the most part Americans have not reacted in a manner that suggests they see a dangerous shadow over their personal liberties. Similarly, since 1986, when French domestic counterterrorism became more intrusive, France has not gone down the proverbial slippery slope to tyranny. The society, its politics, and many of its laws have actually become much more liberal and open.

As a practical matter, there will always be a trade-off between citizen liberties and the powers a state needs to fight certain threats. Yet it is the duty of any liberal democracy not only to protect the rights associated with a decent political order, but also to protect the lives of its citizens. Exercising power in the name of security is not, ipso facto, an illiberal activity. And as our examination of the French approach to counterterrorism suggests, the exercise of such power can be considerable indeed.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Gary J. Schmitt is a resident scholar at AEI and director of the Institute’s Program on Advanced Strategic Studies.

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