French elite police units, including the same RAID unit that took 32 hours to spray Toulouse gunman Merah with bullets, have now taken the initiative, and early Friday morning arrested some 20 Islamist militants, including a few in Toulouse.
RAID carried out the arrests in Toulouse in the southwest, Nantes and Le Mans in western France, as well as in the Paris region.
The obvious question is: seriously? A week later, and only twenty bad guys are under arrest?
Americans, Israelis, let’s face it, Mankind, are happy to make fun of the French when it comes to military and police capability. They make fantastic cheese and wine, goes the generally accepted notion, but when it comes to security we’d all prefer to be watched over by Navy Seals or Israeli Commandos.
That general notion is more than a bit unfair, but all of us are not eager to be confused with the facts when it comes to evaluating the French.
Our prejudices were only reinforced by the performance of the elite RAID unit in Toulouse. Last week, Christian Prouteau, founder of the GIGN, an elite French police unit that was not part of the Toulouse failure, questioned the way the operation had been carried out. He asked why RAID had not utilized tear gas and other measures to disable Merah, and said he was surprised that after so many hours of waiting, Police still failed to capture the gunman alive.
But bungling the job in Toulouse does not necessarily imply that Police have their numbers wrong.
Interior Minister Claude Gueant last week defended the security forces’ efforts to stomp out terrorism in that country, saying 700 people have been detained over the past 10 years, and about 60 “Islamists with terrorist tendencies” are currently in French prisons.
How many active Jihadists are operating in France? And how many are, in effect, engaged in plotting the next wild, murderous attack?
The French news channel France 24 says French authorities believe that only between 20 and 30 French nationals are tied to the radical Jihadist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
CNN, citing a 2010 French intelligence estimate, says the potential number is more like 200 or 250.
Mathieu Guidère, a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the University Toulouse II-Le Mirail, told France 24 that the number of French radical Islamists, both violent and non-violent, may be as high as one thousand, with a nucleus of a few—only 10 to 20—who are engaged in plotting.
How reliable are those figures? This depends on the reliability of the men and women in and out of uniform who gather the data. And in that area, the French have been gutsy leaders rather than cowardly followers.
Marc Perelman, writing for Front Page Magazine in 2006, described a 1988 appearance of Alain Marsaud, then France’s top antiterrorist magistrate, before FBI new recruits at the bureau’s academy in Quantico, Virginia.
Marsaud told the audience of would-be federal agents of the deadly threat posed to Western society by radical Islamist terrorist networks. His presentation was “an unmitigated flop.”
“They thought we were Martians,” said Marsaud, who at the time of the interview chaired the French Parliaments domestic security commission. “They were interested in neo-Nazis and green activists, and that was it.”
Excellent cheese and wine aside, it was France which uncovered and thwarted a plot to crash a jetliner into the Eiffel Tower, which was a chilling preview of the 9/11 attacks on the US. France was the first to deal with the unpleasant fact that its own citizens may become assets of Islamist terrorist groups—years before British Muslims bombed the London Underground.
France learned all about Arab terrorism from the Algerian war in the 1950’s, from Palestinian groups in the 1970s, and from Iranian- and Syrian-inspired terrorism in the 1980s. As a result France developed a system that connects seamlessly the judiciary and security forces.
The 1986 comprehensive antiterrorism law set up a centralized unit of investigating magistrates in Paris, headed initially by Marsaud, with jurisdiction over all terrorism cases. Unlike other French criminal proceedings, “terrorist trials in France are judged only by panels of professional magistrates, without the participation of juries.”
In the French system, an investigating judge is the equivalent of an empowered U.S. prosecutor. The judge is in charge of a secret probe, through which he or she can file charges, order wiretaps, and issue warrants and subpoenas. The conclusions of the judge are then transmitted to the prosecutors office, which decides whether to send the case to trial. The antiterrorist magistrates have even broader powers than their peers. For instance, they can request the assistance of the police and intelligence services, order the preventive detention of suspects for six days without charge, and justify keeping someone behind bars for several years pending an investigation. In addition, they have an international mandate when a French national is involved in a terrorist act, be it as a perpetrator or as a victim. As a result, France today has a pool of specialized judges and investigators adept at dismantling and prosecuting terrorist networks.
Olivier Guitta wrote in Front Page Magazine in 2005 that “the French understand how clerics and imams radicalize members of the Arab community and help to enlist them in terrorist causes.”