The French Experience of Counter-terrorism

On the evening of 3 October 1980, a motorbike was parked outside the synagogue on the Rue Copernic in an upscale section of Paris. Several minutes later a bomb packed into the motorbike’s saddlebags exploded, killing four passers-by and wounding 11. It was the sixth and most serious attack on a Jewish target within a week. The bombing sparked a protest rally in Paris against anti-Semitism and intensified debate about the influence of the neo-Nazi movement in France, which the authorities blamed for the wave of attacks. In fact, as the investigation would reveal in the coming weeks, Middle Eastern terrorists had perpetrated the wave of bombings. The attack at Rue Copernic was eventually seen as the opening salvo in a long campaign by foreign terrorists whose purpose was to influence French policy in the Middle East. None of the various French intelligence and police agencies had given any warning that such attacks were imminent or even possible. They were, moreover, unable to immediately identify the attacks as coming from foreign terrorists, despite the perpetrators wanting them to know.

Nearly 20 years later, on 14 December 1999, an Algerian named Ahmed Ressam was arrested on the U.S.-Canadian border with a trunk full of explosives intended for use in an attack on the Los Angeles International Airport. Ressam grew up in Algeria, resided in Canada and plotted attacks against the United States, but despite having few French connections, French authorities knew who Ressam was and what he intended. French anti-terrorism investigators had been tracking Ressam and his associates in Canada for over three years and had repeatedly warned Canadian authorities of Ressam?s intention to carry out terrorist attacks in North America. After his arrest, French investigators were able to provide the FBI with a complete dossier on Ressam and to aid U.S. authorities in identifying his associates, eventually sending an official to testify at his trial.

In short, in 1980, French authorities could not even identify a foreign terrorist attack in the middle of Paris after it had happened. In 1999, they possessed a detailed understanding of a terrorist cell in another country plotting attacks against yet a third country. This striking contrast reflects a more general increase in the French capacity to prevent and fight terrorism, both at home and abroad. Throughout the 1980s and much of the 1990s, France was considered a haven for international terrorists, both for those operating in France and those using France as a base for operations elsewhere. By the late 1990s, in contrast, France had scored notable successes in preventing planned terrorist attacks on the World Cup in 1998, against the Strasbourg Cathedral in 2000 and against the American Embassy in Paris 2001.