France struggles to infiltrate terror networks | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 26.06.2015
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France struggles to infiltrate terror networks

After the attack in southern France, Paris needs to look at working its intelligence better, says Susi Dennison with the European Council on Foreign Relations. One of the suspects was known to authorities.

DW: What do we know about the attack so far?

Susi Dennison: A factory very near Lyon in southeastern France was attacked this morning. We know it was undertaken by one or more people driving a vehicle at high speed into the factory and there was an attempt made to detonate gas canisters and cause a serious explosion in the factory.

We don't know why this larger explosion didn't happen. People in the area reported a relatively low-level explosion. We know at least one person has been killed by beheading and that jihadi Islamist flags were in evident in the area.

Is it still unclear if the attacker has worked alone or as part of a wider group?

The authorities have said that a number of people have been arrested in connection to the attack and there are mixed reports about whether the driver of the vehicle was included in that number. But there have been quite clear reports that one of the people who had been taken into custody was the person who had in their possession a gas canister to try to cause the explosion.

The suspect arrested was known to the authorities and has links to the Salafist movement, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said. Why did they fail to prevent the attack if the suspect was known to the authorities?

This is a question which people will be working very intensely on over the coming hours and days. In the wake of the attacks back in January - the so-called Charlie Hebdo attacks which killed 17 people in Paris earlier this year - there was a whole new wave of anti-terrorist measures brought in by the government. This was in addition to existing counterterrorism legislation, which was already pretty competitive within Europe in terms of its ability - at least in terms of surveillance.

Expenditure was increased on staffing for counterterrorism, particular attention was given to the ability to intercept communication between terrorist groups and a new terrorism watch list was adopted from the beginning of this year. That's the open question why this person was known to the authorities, apparently as far back as 2006.

French Gendarmes block the access road to the industrial area of Saint-Quentin-Fallavier, outside Lyon, France

French police block access to the industrial area of Saint-Quentin-Fallavier where a gas factoy was attacked on Friday

Are terrorists increasingly targeting non-state actors such as satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, a kosher supermarket and now this gas factory because they are easier targets than government buildings?

That's an interesting question. I don't have any information as to why this factory in particular was attacked, but it is certainly true that government buildings will be subject to more heightened surveillance than civilian buildings. Clearly terrorism operates on the basis of the ability to instill fear into the wider population, and so I guess it's a logical thing to break through lines of security where it's more possible.

It's been almost six months since the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket in Paris in January. Has the attacker or the attackers chosen this date deliberately? Are these dates important to terrorists in keeping their atrocities alive?

I think the appearance of continued activity is important whether or not today's date has been chosen for any particular reason, I couldn't say. But I think clearly it will have an affect in terms of not allowing the population of France to relax into a sensation that what happened in January is behind us.

A woman hangs signs reading (from L to R) I am Charlie, I am police officer, I am mourning and I am Jewish while paying tribute to the victims of a hostage taking at the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket near Porte de Vincennes in eastern Paris January 10, 2015.

It's been almost six months since the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket in Paris

There are also apparently websites calling on extremists to take action at home if they cannot get to Iraq or Syria to join the jihad there. How seriously do European authorities need to take this threat?

The French government has said [it's] looking - along with other governments - into limiting access and reaches of these sorts of websites. This is clearly a relatively new area, the issue of cyber security for European governments and tackling this problem.

It also has to be said that Islamic State and other terrorist groups were operating through these cyber networks a lot better than governments at the moment - remaining one step ahead in terms of accessibility and outreach. Indeed, sharing a narrative which doe, unfortunately, seem to have an appeal to disaffected, young Muslim people living in Europe today.

I think it's of critical importance for government to get that response right, but that needs to be proportionate. It's not going to serve Europe well to respond to these attacks - or any other - in a way that is damaging to the very civil liberties which are under attack by terrorist groups.

How should France react? Do you expect France to tighten its security laws?

Over the last six months, and indeed before that, France has been going through a process of tightening up its counterterrorism legislation, some aspects of which have proven quite controversial.

My immediate view would be that it's not legislation that's lacking in terms of the French government's response. This is more about the question of implementation and using the existing legislative framework to actually implement processes of infiltration and breaking down the networks which were operating.

What about keeping track of information they might already have?

That was also one of the issues which was repeatedly raised after the Charlie Hebdo attacks that at least one of the Kouachi brothers involved in the attacks was known to the authorities. That is an ongoing challenge.

Susi Dennison is a senior policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) in London.

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