Charlie Hebdo: could security services have prevented Paris attacks?

French intelligence had classified Kouachi brothers as ‘very high priority’ but surveillance was cut and they slipped the net

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.


Jamie Doward

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Gunmen who stormed Charlie Hebdo offices ‘may have had training’
Analysts say the three seemed professional and organised, as investigators probe reports of their claim to be from al-Qaida

Jason Burke, Ewen MacAskill and Alexandra Topping

07, Jan, 2015 @8:31 PM

Article image
Charlie Hebdo suspect Cherif Kouachi linked to network of French militants
Man who led deadly attack on the satirical magazine had links to disorganised web of extremists for more than 10 years

Jason Burke

08, Jan, 2015 @6:42 PM

Article image
‘It still makes me angry’: the wife of a murdered Charlie Hebdo cartoonist speaks out
Maryse Wolinski, whose husband Georges was killed in the Charlie Hebdo attack, talks about the notes he left behind – and the questions that still need answering

Angelique Chrisafis

19, Mar, 2016 @10:00 AM

Article image
Paris terrorist attacks: gunman’s girlfriend evades French police
Hayat Boumeddiene thought to be in Syria after leaving France days before Charlie Hebdo attack and supermarket siege

Jon Henley, Kim Willsher and Anne Penketh in Paris

10, Jan, 2015 @7:03 PM

Article image
Paris attacks: worldwide inquiry into jihadi networks under way
Priority is uncovering further planned attacks, as it emerges surveillance on Chérif and Saïd Kouachi was lifted months ago

Julian Borger

11, Jan, 2015 @3:01 PM

Article image
‘I’d rather have prevented the Paris attacks than predicted them’ says film director
Nicolas Boukhrief explains how his powerful movie about jihadi plots, Made in France, plots had to be delayed in November and why it will now be made available online

Kim Willsher in Paris

24, Jan, 2016 @12:05 AM

Article image
French security under scrutiny after Charlie Hebdo anniversary attack
Hollande’s speech on 2015 massacre marked by shooting of knifeman in Paris and debate on efficacy of intelligence forces

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

07, Jan, 2016 @7:46 PM

Article image
Charlie Hebdo attack: suspected accomplices go on trial in Paris
Fourteen charged over killing of 17 people at satirical magazine and kosher supermarket

Kim Willsher in Paris

02, Sep, 2020 @3:56 PM

Article image
Paris attacks: rallies held across France as police hunt suspected accomplice – live
Rolling coverage as French media reports that Hayat Boumeddiene could be in Syria, and thousands join #JeSuisCharlie rallies

Claire Phipps

10, Jan, 2015 @5:11 PM

Article image
Charlie Hebdo: officials establish link between gunmen in both attacks — as it happened
Follow live updates as gunmen in Paris supermarket siege and outside city killed

Matthew Weaver , Josh Halliday, Alexandra Topping, Jonathan Bucks, Alan Yuhas and Raya Jalabi in New York

10, Jan, 2015 @2:52 AM