Shortly before the attack on Charlie Hebdo, a Twitter user, believed to be an Isis fighter in Syria, tweeted a curt and cryptic message that read: “Snail eaters.”
Soon after the murders of 10 staff and their associates at the satirical magazine, as well as two police officers, the same Twitter user – whose account linked to ones used by British jihadists fighting in Syria and speeches by radical Islamic clerics Anjem Choudary and Omar Bakri – posted a news report about the massacre. Minutes later, the account, which has been taken down, boasted: “You heard it here first. #SnailEaters ate lead.”
It looks increasingly likely that others beyond the three dead terrorists were aware of the forthcoming attacks in Paris. French media have reported that the Algerian secret services warned Paris last Tuesday that a terrorist attack on their soil was imminent.
But the stark question facing the French security services now is: if they were aware that something was coming, did they have any idea how it would look or who would be behind it? And there is a wider question: do security services in potential target countries have enough resources of the right kind to anticipate and deal with the threats they face?
Certainly, the three attackers were not “clean skins”, rogue terrorists unknown to the authorities. Rather, they were all too familiar to them. All three had well-documented ties to extremist networks and Islamist preachers, and their journeys to radicalisation had been keenly mapped by the legal system.
“These guys were known to be bad, and the French had tabs on them for a while,” an American official speaking anonymously to the New York Times said of the two Kouachi brothers. “At some point, though, they allocated resources differently. They moved on to other targets.”
At the end of a week in which French counter-terrorism police won praise for bringing two simultaneous hostage situations to an end, exactly how that key decision to “move on” was reached is the source of anguished soul-searching in France as attention turns to whether the attacks could have been prevented.
Speaking on French television on Friday night, the French prime minister, Manuel Valls, appeared to capture the mood of many in his country.
“There is a clear failing,” Valls said. “When 17 people die, it means there were cracks.”
Chérif Kouachi, one of the brothers behind the attack on Charlie Hebdo, had a terrorism-related conviction in 2008 for his ties to the Buttes-Chaumont network.
After his time in prison, where he was further radicalised by another preacher, Djamel Beghal, who was serving a 10-year sentence for a failed plot to attack the US embassy in Paris in 2001, Cherif became closed-off and unresponsive and started growing a beard, his former attorney, Vincent Ollivier, told Le Parisien.
His brother, Saïd, is known to have visited Yemen where he is believed to have met the US-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, the senior al-Qaida operative in Yemen who was killed by a US drone strike in September 2011.
Amedy Coulibaly, the attacker who seized hostages in the kosher supermarket in eastern Paris, killing four of them, also had a well-documented hatred of the west.
On Saturday, French radio station RTL released audio in which Coulibaly attacked western military campaigns against extremists in Syria and Mali, and described Osama bin Laden as an inspiration.
In 2013, Coulibaly was sentenced to five years in prison for his involvement in the escape from prison of Ait Ali Belkacem, a radical Islamist and former member of the Algerian GIA who was sentenced to life imprisonment for an attack on a train between Musée-d’Orsay and Saint-Michel-Notre Dame stations, which injured 30 people. Chérif Kouachi had also been arrested in connection with the Orsay attack.
Given the Kouachi brothers’ extensive involvement in radical Islamist circles, it is unsurprising that both the French and US spy agencies had classified them as “very high” priority terrorist suspects. Their names were entered into a database of 1.2 million individuals whom the US considers to be terrorist suspects. They were also on the smaller “no fly” list barring them from boarding flights to or in the US.
However, more recently there are suggestions that the French authorities had scaled back the monitoring of the Kouachis as the brothers kept a low profile, perhaps consciously avoiding contact with others whom they knew to be under surveillance.
The American official said that French intelligence and law enforcement agencies had conducted surveillance on one or both of the Kouachis but this had been reduced or perhaps dropped as they sought to focus on what they believed were bigger threats.
The imbalance between the increasing threat and the drop in capabilities is one that the British security services will recognise only too well.
Last week, the head of MI5, Andrew Parker, called for new powers to fight the threat of Islamic extremism and acknowledged the limitations of his organisation, saying: “My sharpest concern as director-general of MI5 is the growing gap between the increasingly challenging threat and the decreasing availability of capabilities to address it.”
Given the sheer pressure to monitor the hundreds of potential targets within their home countries – not to mention the hundreds coming back from fighting abroad – the security services in France and the UK must now prioritise whom to focus on.
- This article was amended on 16 January 2015 to correct a reference to an attack on on the “train museum at Orsay in 1995 which killed eight people”. The attack, on 17 October 1995, took place between Musée-d’Orsay and Saint-Michel-Notre Dame stations, injuring 30 people. Eight were killed on 25 July 1995 in a bombing at Saint-Michel RER station.