On the Record

In Battling Terrorism, the French Excel

Jeremy Shapiro

Jeremy Shapiro joins NPR’s Alison Stewart to discuss how France has become the most effective counter-terrorism practitioner in Europe. 

ALISON STEWART, host:  The French excel at many things, red wine, perfumes, silk scarves, and fighting terrorism. Because of a unique system where intelligence and the judicial communities work in tandem, France is considered to have one of the best track records on keeping its citizenry safe after a few decades of considerable fear.

Now, considering a recording attributed to Osama bin Laden threatened attacks in Europe, reprisals for running cartoons depicting Allah in some European papers, and just yesterday al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released a new audio tape calling for attacks in American targets, perhaps the U.S. should take a look at the French model, or maybe not. Here to help us consider this is Jeremy Shapiro, director of research at the Center of the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. Jeremy, thank you for being with us.

JEREMY SHAPIRO: Thanks for having me.

STEWART: Now, at two points in the past two decades, mid-’90s, mid-’80s, France was dealing with a series of attacks internally, department stores, trains. Why, at the time, did it seem to be infested with terror cells?

SHAPIRO: Well, it seems as if, particularly in the 1970s, France essentially allowed itself to be a sanctuary for terrorists, as long as they wouldn’t attack French interests, and as long as they wouldn’t operate within France. And this, over time, proved to be a problem, because when the interest of the groups changes or when the international situation changed, they decided to lash out at France. And of course, they were well-placed to do so.

STEWART: So the French just basically did not poke the hornet’s nest internally?

SHAPIRO: Yeah, precisely. This is a common strategy, actually. We saw it in London in the 1990s. We’ve seen it in the U.S., even, with regard to Irish terrorists in the 1970s.

STEWART: Now, the French moved to a manage-and-minimize strategy, from suppression to prevention. Can you describe the changes French intelligence services made that took care of the past problems and possible thwarted problems in the future?

SHAPIRO: Well, one of the things they noticed, particularly after the ’80s and ’90s, was that it wasn’t enough to simply be able to respond to the attacks. You had to get into the networks. You had to get into the logistical networks and that meant sort of increasing surveillance on the society and their ability to bring into play judicial tools before what they had previously considered crimes even took place. And so they created both a crime of what we would call conspiracy, and also an organization which could act with judicial powers even before violent acts had taken place.

STEWART: Let’s break down a couple of the things you talked about, because that’s a bunch of different ideas. The French, they’ve chosen to live with this very different standard of surveillance than we have in the United States. Describe the kind of surveillance that’s allowed.

SHAPIRO: The French have really extensive domestic surveillance. They have a domestic intelligence agency which – they have two domestic intelligence agencies, but one of them basically just does surveillance. They are placed in more or less every town. They go into mosques and churches. They take polls – secret polls of the countryside to figure out what people are thinking. And it’s generally assumed in France that the government is looking at what you are doing.

Listen to the full interview »