Advice for France in its “War on Terror”

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“France is at war against terrorism, jihadism, and radical Islamism.” So said French Prime Minister Manuel Valls in the aftermath of the Paris attacks that some observers have called France’s 9/11. We asked five subject matter experts, including an analyst and former FBI agent, one of the CIA’s original al Qaeda hands, an intelligence historian and former intelligence analyst, a former senior adviser to the highest levels of the U.S. military, and a renowned scholar of jihadist movements, how they would advise France—among America’s oldest allies—as they embark on their own “war on terror.”

Cindy Storer

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

As the French add manpower to the security and intelligence services and enact new legislation to support counterterrorism, they should be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that all those who worked against terrorism before 7 January somehow failed in their duty. The speed with which authorities identified perpetrators and associates, as well as changes that could be made to improve counterterror efforts, indicate to me that someone in the French intelligence and police services has been aware of and concerned about the threat for quite some time. Give them what they need and listen to what they say, don’t sideline them to cover up someone else’s now questionable decisions.

Respect the enemy.

Speculating first that attacks may be the work of “lone wolves” then obsessing over whether the perpetrators are linked to ISIS, al-Qaeda, so called “North African networks” or something else, obscures the fact that jihadi networks are persistent, well-organized, and global. These are not new cells – they are old cells with new people. Yes, the differences matter in some respects, but it is all too easy to lose site of the whole when focusing on a small part within a single jurisdiction.

Play the long game.

Make a “just peace” (jus post bellum) your primary concern, not just the perceived needs of the moment. If you accept that the enemy is a global network, then it follows that a lasting peace is not a simple matter of “rounding up the bad guys.” In the past hundred years, the Middle East has experienced wars fueled by tribalism, nationalism, communism, and Islamism. It has been almost 90 years since the Muslim Brotherhood was founded, 52 years since Algerian independence, and 27 years since al-Qaeda was founded. The same underlying problems have fueled decades of war under different names. Many of our counterterrorism practices and foreign policies exacerbate these problems. If you sacrifice the long term for the short term, the fighting will go on and on.


Cindy Storer is an original al-Qaeda analyst at the CIA, and later a strategic analyst in the U.S. “War on Terror.” She currently speaks, writes, and teaches about al-Qaeda, terrorism, and intelligence.


Thomas F. Lynch III

Don’t despair of intelligence share.

National intelligence agencies have dramatically increased collaboration and data sharing since September 2001. It seems that French and American officials practiced collaboration in the cases of Charlie Hedbo terrorists Said and Cherif Kouachi.   U.S. spy agencies identified them from collection activities in Yemen and Iraq, flagged them with French officials and added them to classified data bases and a no-fly list. French authorities knew of their radicalized background.   One can conclude that the enhanced international system worked – even while acknowledging it was insufficient to prevent the specific Charlie Hedbo attack. It should be endorsed as vital and extended into the future.

Relook the value of investigation/incarceration for material support to international terrorism.

By all accounts, French authorities had the Kouachi brothers under surveillance for some time. Cherif Kouachi was reportedly jailed and then released after 18 months for conspiracy to support jihadist groups in Iraq during 2008-09. He was later named in connection with a plot to enable the jail break of a convicted Algerian jihadist leader, but it is unclear what French authorities did then – perhaps missing an opportunity to lock him away for a longer period of time. In a similar circumstance the U.S. Department of Justice undertook a comprehensive investigation of a Minneapolis man suspected as a facilitator for the Somali terrorist group al Shabaab.   A two-year FBI probe known as Operation Rhino produced twenty separate 2009 federal indictments for material support to a terrorist organization, jailing several and causing others to flee the country. For understandable reasons, other liberal western democracies have been less willing to be so assertive on the grounds of material support to overseas terrorist groups. Yet this aversion may be waning.   In Australia for example, the government has recently changed several of its laws to make it easier for security officials to demonstrate that people have been overseas with “evil intentions.”  Like the Australians, the French may do well to revisit anti-terrorism and material support laws. The French Prime Minister may aim for such an updated legal and intelligence framework with an anticipated announcement in March.

Celebrate and Bolster National Resilience.

The notion of national resilience has evolved since the 9/11/2001 trauma. Back then many political leaders in western democracies fed skittish publics a diet of suspect rhetoric intimating that better organizations, more security and law enforcement resources, and above all more money could fully eliminate public risk from terrorism.   Unrealistic promises met unbending reality.   Terrorism persisted. The costs to driving terrorism risks to zero, always prohibitive, were exposed as infeasible.   From at least 2008, governments with shrinking budgets acknowledged that some terrorism risks would remain and began to socialize this notion with their polities, often advanced as the notion of national resilience. As described in the U. S. National Strategy for Counter-terrorism, a resilient nation is one that demonstrates the individual and collective strength to absorb, rebuild and recover from any terrorist strike – thereby denying terrorists the objective of psychological damage to the nation.   In America, a culture of resilience was demonstrated in the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. The local law enforcement and emergency medical responses to that tragedy demonstrated exceptional competence and “Boston Strong” became the phrase that rallied the city and denied the terrorists intended psychological effect.  Hearteningly, the early French response to its terrorism tragedy seems to exemplify similar resilience.   From the capable response by police and first-line responders, to the rallying cry of “We are Charlie,” and to the French President’s announcement that France would stand firm on the commitment to deploy its nuclear aircraft carrier to the Arabian Gulf to support anti-ISIS operations, the aftermath of the Paris massacre appears to be one of resolve not recoil.   French reinforcement of resilience as a dominant principal western national response to terrorism may be the most important counter-terrorism outcome, and tip, of all.


Thomas F. (Tom) Lynch III is a distinguished research fellow for South Asia and the Near East at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. He also researches and writes on the legacy of terrorism and the trajectory of radical Islam. The opinions expressed in this commentary represent his own views and are not those of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the United States government.


Clint Watts

Don’t make the problem bigger than it is.

After 9/11, the U.S. felt it could only prevent another attack by solving all of the world’s problems from Pakistan to Morocco. In reality, al Qaeda, on 9/11, numbered no more than the hundreds. Rather than narrowly focusing on al Qaeda, the U.S. expanded its counterterrorism campaign to rebuilding entire nations – an impossible task which has done almost nothing to stop the stateless al Qaeda. France should clearly define its terrorist threat before scoping their counterterrorism solution.

Develop a foreign fighter policy.

The U.S. has chosen to do counterterrorism through the lens of al Qaeda and now ISIS. But these two monikers fail to adequately capture the resiliency of three generations of jihadi militancy. If France seeks to truly insulate itself from terrorism, they should develop a comprehensive strategy to deal with its former, current and future foreign fighters – the true thread of militancy propelling recent attacks. The U.S. has chosen to chase jihadis from battlefield to battlefield, ignoring the hotspots from which these militants perpetually arise. France should look to dissuade foreign fighters returning from Syria from committing violence at home. France should separate veteran fighters from individuals vulnerable to radicalization and recruitment and examine methods to discredit both ISIS and al Qaeda in the minds of disenfranchised Muslim boys. Lastly, they should define a strategy for both monitoring and reintegrating fighters returning from Syria.

Partner on intelligence.

France has historically been credited with good intelligence services – the DGSE and the DGSI. But these services are small and cannot possibly cover the breadth of threats presented by ISIS and al Qaeda from North Africa through the Levant and Middle East. The U.S. tipped off France to the Kouachi connections to AQAP. There are more potential threats than the DGSI and law enforcement can cover. Successfully tagging and tracking internal and external terror threats moving forward will mean the French will need to be more open to sharing and seek integration with the U.S. in the way the “Five Eyes” system works for the U.S., U.K., Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Unfortunately, France’s conflict of interests in Africa and the Levant will likely make this difficult.


Clint Watts is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and the Homeland Security Policy Institute at The George Washington University.  Prior to his current work as a security consultant, Clint served as a U.S. Army infantry officer, a FBI Special Agent on a Joint Terrorism Task Force and as the Executive Officer of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.


Mark Stout

Make sure the bad guys look more thuggish than you do.

The terrorists are not merely trying to terrorize the general French population. They are actually trying to rally other Muslims in France and former French colonial possessions to their cause. Thus, it is vital to make your state appear the better of the two choices. The French state should make the contrast as stark as possible between themselves and the terrorists by appearing calm, competent, and humane. The contrast can easily be made very stark. After all, terrorists are easily portrayed as thugs, because that is their true nature. Even when there are legitimate social and economic grievances they draw upon, nobody wants to live in a thugocracy. For instance, during the 1990s, the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria made itself appear far worse than the Algerian government and the movement burned itself out. Other groups from the Tupamaros in Uruguay in the 1960s and 1970s to Al Qaeda in Iraq have also made the mistake of appearing more thuggish than the system they were trying to overthrow and suffered badly for it.

Assess new security measures from the point of view of a parliamentary inquiry held 15 years from now by your political opponents.

When a nation is reeling from a traumatic event there is a great temptation to do everything possible to prevent it from happening again. Often, however, measures that seem to make sense the month after an attack outlast the emergency and then are hard to get rid of or even to justify at all looking back with the benefit of hindsight. At best, they will then turn into political embarrassments: witness the Senate torture report or Edward Snowden’s revelations about domestic surveillance. At worst, they can create new opposition to the state that need not have existed.

Assess risks rationally.

Don’t bankrupt the state and destroy its ideals in a foolish effort to provide complete safety from terrorism because, as bad as it is, terrorism is not the biggest threat facing the French people. In fact, it is almost impossible to imagine a future in which terrorists kill even a fraction of the number of people that car accidents, domestic violence or any of a number of other social ills do.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies and the Graduate Certificate Program in Intelligence at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.


Stephen Tankel

Don’t over-react.

That’s pretty basic, but also vital. The Charlie Hebdo attack, and the siege at the kosher grocery store were horrific crimes of political violence. It is easy to understand Prime Minister Manuel Valls’ declaration of war “against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islam, against everything that is aimed at breaking fraternity, freedom, solidarity.” Soaring rhetoric is fine, so long as those making policy don’t get carried away. One of terrorism’s primary functions is to catalyze an adversary’s over-reaction. There’s clearly work to be done on the home front in terms of countering violent extremism, though that problem is not a new one. The security services could probably use more resources and manpower as well. As the French people know, France has weathered waves of terrorism in the past. Building on that resilience will be critical in terms of formulating a measured response that does not drive terrorist recruitment or fuel extremist sentiment, and which leaves the French ideals of fraternity, freedom, and solidarity intact.

Be clear about your objectives and your enemies.

The United States did not properly understand the scope of the threat or the strength of the enemy after 9/11. We understandably inflated both. So make sure your assessments are sober. Then be as ruthlessly realistic as possible in developing achievable objectives to counter that threat, and remember the cardinal rule about conservation of enemies.

Think carefully about where counterterrorism fits in your foreign policy.

It is impossible to ignore the interconnectivity of the threats facing France and events Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and other jihadist hot spots around the world. Indeed, approximately 1,000 French citizens reportedly either have joined, or are planning to join jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria. And, of course, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed credit for the Charlie Hebdo attack. There is probably scope to increase cooperation with various countries, including the United States, but France has other foreign policy objectives beside counterterrorism. It’s worth remembering that.

Don’t invade Iraq.

Bonus tip. ‘nuff said.


Stephen Tankel, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor at American University and a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He has conducted field research on conflicts and militancy in Algeria, India, Lebanon, Pakistan, and the Balkans. Dr. Tankel spent 2014 serving as a senior adviser in the Office of Asian and Pacific Security Affairs at the Department of Defense.