Why French Counterterrorism Efforts Are Too Much, Too Late

The windshield of the heavy truck that rammed into a crowd at high speed killing scores celebrating Bastille Day on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

It seemed not long ago that experts were praising French "hearts and minds" counterterrorism tactics. Then came the bloody assaults on a magazine office, a Jewish deli, a concert hall, a soccer stadium, Parisian restaurants, and now, of course, Nice.

And now the old playbook is gone.

"France is at war," President François Hollande declared after last November's Paris attacks.

"We are at war," the French interior secretary Bernard Cazeneuve repeated in Nice, "with terrorists who want to strike us at every cost and who are extremely violent."

Yet only six years ago, waging "war" on terrorists was outré in France. Indeed, a veteran French terrorism analyst was boasting that his country had not suffered from attacks like Madrid and London had precisely because the Elysée Palace had learned from its past struggles in Algeria. It made a decision not to adopt paramilitary tactics to root out suspected Islamic militants at home, where there are roughly 10 million Africans and Arabs wedged into vast communities of despair.

"Although these harsher tactics were more successful in gathering intelligence," Charles Rault wrote for the respected Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, "it turned a large part of the local Arab population in Algeria against the French." Only belatedly, he added, did the French realize "that the 'hearts and minds' of a population could not be won through military action alone."

Laisse tomber. Or as they say in New York, fuhgeddaboutit. After Thursday night's attack, Holland announced a three-month extension of last November's emergency measures, including Operation Sentinelle, which put 10,000 soldiers on the streets and around key sites across the country. Reservists were also being drafted to help and legislation was drawn up to give gendarmes the authority to search houses day or night and even control where people could live. For several months now police have been ratcheting up their racial profiling of French Arabs and North Africans, routinely ordering them out of their seats on trains and buses for questioning and pat downs.

If such measures have stopped any terrorist attacks, French authorities aren't talking much about them. In fact, say some American counterterrorism experts with experience in France, it's too much, too late: They are only further embittering millions of immigrants from former colonies who have long been marginalized in French society.

"I went to school in France.… I worked there, and they are really totally excluded," former CIA operative Robert Baer told CNN Thursday night. "And it keeps getting worse since the attacks in Paris because [police] are using profiling and they are stopping people who look like Arabs on trains and buses, checking their IDs, which we don't even do in this country. The French have been very aggressive.… Radicalization of people of North African origin is actually picking up rather than lessening."

In a follow-up interview with Newsweek, Baer declared that French counterterrorism forces "are doomed.… People in those banlieus"—the commonly used, but pejorative term for the poorest black and Arab suburbs around Paris and other major cities "won't talk to them." They are "completely alienated."

One measure of their disdain for authority, says Baer, who says he listens to French radio, is their continuing embrace of "Click, Click, Boom," the 2001 hip-hop classic by the Memphis group Saliva:

I can see it in my mind,
I can see it in their eyes.
It's close enough to touch it now,
But far away enough to die.

A former chief of CIA operations in France echoed Baer. "France has teams of people trained to deal with these people and have hired ethnic officers [for it], and it makes no difference whatsoever," he told Newsweek on condition of anonymity because he still visits the country.

France, Baer argues, has got to shut off immigration from its former African colonies. Not because they're "murderers, they just want to survive. But when they become third-class citizens" in France's rigid social hierarchy, where an inability to speak fluent Parisian French alone locks them out of any channels of advancement, they're ripe for recruitment by criminal gangs, he says—or worse.

Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, the 31-year-old Tunisian-born truck driver who waged mayhem in Nice on Thursday night, "was a bitter divorced delivery man with a violent criminal record—but no apparent ties to any religious extremist group," according to one account. No amount of racial profiling would likely have netted him. And there are untold more like him in the banlieus.

"They're like ants' nests," the former station chief said. "Once in awhile, one gets out and does something nasty."

Ali Soufan, a former FBI counterterrorism agent and author of The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against Al-Qaeda, also has problems with police zeroing in on people because of their race or ethnicity. "Behavioral profiling can be effective in detecting suspicious behavior.… " he tells Newsweek. "Racial profiling undermines the confidence of the targeted community or ethnic group." They stop talking to the cops, stew in their resentment and maybe look the other way when an ISIS recruiter shows up.

"The answer" to preventing homegrown terrorist attacks, says the former CIA station chief, "is a better understanding of people. But the only way to get that is people on having ground, gathering intelligence" in the banlieus. "But it's hard to do when those communities are closed off."

In the 1980s, Baer was a Paris-based CIA officer pursuing a previous generation of terrorists—Iranians and their Lebanese henchmen, Hezbollah—who were running amok in Europe and taking out their enemies. (His work was dramatized in the 2005 George Clooney thriller, Syriana.) Eventually, the French cauterized the threat. How?

"They were disciplined," Baer says, nearly in awe. "You could make a deal with them." And so it went down: Money changed hands, prisoners were swapped and a kind of French-Iranian détente settled in. Whatever one might think of the morality of that, the killing stopped—at least on French soil.

The problem for France today, Baer says, is "there's nobody to cut deal with." The ISIS-inspired killing there, he figures, will continue.