The fight against terrorism is a very particular kind of war. An asymmetric battle in which the intelligence services are engaged in a relentless battle against an enemy as radical as it is invisible. In other words, unlike the rules that determine the balance of power in conventional wars, when faced with the faceless adversary known as terrorism, striking power and military supremacy are not the most decisive elements.
As a result, counter-terrorism is first and foremost an intelligence war. By definition, this is a constant struggle requiring dangerous and perpetual clandestine operations of investigation, surveillance, tracking, infiltration or sabotage.
It is therefore a shadow war where discretion and secrecy are required. This is why it is at the extreme opposite of spectacular gestures and ostentatious security devices, which aim to reassure public opinion or to heal the popularity ratings of governors.
And unlike military clashes or conventional police operations, the asymmetric and secret nature of the fight against terrorism means that it is not enough to hunt down and dismantle targeted organisations. It also and above all involves constantly listening to and monitoring a multitude of clandestine networks, dormant or active, in order to gather the necessary information to infiltrate and trace their various networks and branches. And to be informed of what is happening in the secret of terrorist groups, in order to be able to anticipate the fateful hour of their passage to action and to thwart their subversive projects.
Thus, the main purpose of this anti-terrorist intelligence war is not to destroy or break up terrorist organisations from within, as in the James Bond spy novels. Nor to attack them in a frontal way, as would be done during military offensives against regular armies.
Above all, it is a matter of establishing – and continuously updating – a set of markers and indicators to detect threats and anticipate terrorist projects before they are carried out. Because each attack perpetrated is an admission of failure for anti-terrorist intelligence.
A failure from which we must immediately learn lessons, in order to move up the Sisyphean slope, by setting up different markers to detect and anticipate the new faces and new forms that the future terrorist threat will take.
This is a perpetual – and sometimes macabre – cat and mouse play between terrorist groups and intelligence services. And never since the outbreak of modern terrorist phenomena at the beginning of the 19th century has this arm wrestling match known so many adventures, mutations and reversals of situation, as since the emergence of jihadist terrorism in the early 1990s.
And it has been a fierce struggle for a quarter of a century between the intelligence services, which have been working to detect and anticipate the new forms that the terrorist threat will take after each mutation, and the jihadist networks, which are redoubling their evil ingenuity, to counter the regularly updated anti-terrorist measures that hinder their actions.
This latent war has accelerated dramatically since the attacks of September 11, 2001. But it was with the emergence of Daechian neo-Jihadism, from the summer of 2014, that it reached its peak. This applies to the entire Western world, but it is in France, the Western country most targeted by jihadist attacks since 2015, that its most tragic illustrations have been produced.
In less than four years, France has suffered 11 terrorist attacks, killing 245 people, 17 failed attempts and some 50 plans for attacks thwarted by the anti-terrorist services.
However, the exogenous threat that led to the Charlie-Hebdo attacks in January 2015 and the Paris and Saint Denis attacks in November 2015 quickly gave way to a new type of “endogenous terrorism” where the threat no longer comes from abroad, but from an “internal enemy”.
Thus, from the attack on the ram truck on the “Promenade des Anglais” in Nice on July 14, 2016, to the attacks in Carcassonne and Trèbes on March 23, 2018, the intelligence services have noted that the terrorist acts are no longer the work of jihadist commandos attacking France from the ISIS strongholds in the Iraqi and Syria jihadist areas. They are the poisoned fruit of spontaneous “jihadist vocations”, evoked at a distance by ISIS recruiters, among French “subjects” most often motivated by violent nihilistic impulses, more than by a real desire for a jihadist “holy war”.
(To be continued)
* Writer and consultant, chairman of Roland Jacquard Global Security Consulting (RJGSC)