Protecting the Nation while maintaining the moral high ground

France, over the last decades, has experienced a long series of deadly and vicious terror attacks on their national territory. There is obviously a variation on the motives behind these attacks, but at least in the current situation, an overwhelming majority of attacks with a deadly outcome has clearly been motivated by a distorted Islamic extremism.

By Charles Støeng
International Intelligence, Anti-terror and Security Expert

An extremism that even if only representing a small minute minority of the French Muslim population, have been displaying a staggering hunger for blind violence and have been able to create a series of disastrous events that have inflicted deep traumas in the French society.

France, having a long and interesting history in intelligence operations against Islamic extremists’ groups dating back to the colonial days when facing the first opposition mainly in North Africa and following the WW1 their new territories in Syria and Levant. Islamic terror is in other words not a new issue for French intelligence services, that have developed a highly efficient counter-terrorism apparatus

The result is a well-established and effective intelligence service that supported by all of the governmental security organizations provides a comprehensive counterterrorism framework protecting the republic.


However, not forgetting the deadly terrorist attacks that have unfortunately been able to claim far too many innocent lives, it is worth noticing the numerous serious attacks that have been avoided and terror cells dismantled in France, often without much reaction in the press or other media outlets. In other words, lives have been lost, but many more have undoubtedly been saved over the last 3 decades.

Even if not always successful in avoiding terror disasters, there is today an obvious trend were the large coordinated attacks are often spoiled and avoided by intelligence services actions who tracks, infiltrates, and dismantles various terror cells. Extremists are hence forced to change their murderous tactics to small, often individual attacks against innocent civilians.

It is often within the aftermath of such an individual attack, where a single person has run a truck in to a crowd, or started stabbing fiercely the public at a highly frequented public place sometimes ending in a devastating death toll, that we can learn from mainstream media that the lone attacker was already known by the French intelligence services and that he figured on a mysterious terror list (named “fiche S”, in French) that is keep and maintained by the French authorities. This often creates an uproar of questions and indignation from the press and the public, which are not satisfied with the fact that this person was not already apprehended and in the cases of a foreigner, not already expelled. Right-wing politicians are thundering in the assembly and bloggers are feverishly questioning the lack of preventive actions from the authorities.

Well… Unfortunately, it is not that simple. Among the many intelligence tools created and deployed in order to counter a variety of extremist activities, the surveillance file (fiche S) is one of the most important and in its current format of an utmost importance for the authorities.

France is a modern secular society where one cannot just throw in prison or deport people for their political or religious opinions. France has also like many other countries a substantial number of people within their borders that have religious or political opinions that might be violent in thoughts compared to what is considered acceptable in a modern secular society, but as long as not put in to action or incited as violent actions in public, does not constitute a crime. In other words, one does not arrest people for what they think, and as long as no crime is committed, and there is no proof for the fact that a crime is being prepared, arrest and prosecution are simply legally out of question.

On the other hand, their opinions might spark concerns over a possible future violent action, and since such opinions are often kept within groups of people with similar points of views, it is crucial to keep an eye on holders of such opinions and their entourages.

Any detected holder of violent opinions can, therefore, be put on what we could call an administrative surveillance, where without his knowledge any administrative action within the republic is noted and compared towards the administrative actions of other holders of similar opinions. This is often the base of information gathering in the process where terror groups in creation are detected, and put under a stricter level of surveillance, allowing the discovery of the first unlawful actions that will allow for the triggering of arrest and the following dismantlement of the terror cell.

Many countries where I have previously been working does not operate as modern secular societies and do not have the same legal framework, hence do not experience the same limitations by strictly respecting the basic human rights and the rule of law. In such nations, individuals falling under the categories and needs for surveillance as described here over are often simply arrested, imprisoned and that is if they are not simply killed on the spot. It is up to every nation and its people to create the societies and the rules they might find suitable. However, for a modern secular society, this is not an option.

In conclusion:
The fact that a terrorist carrying out an isolated attack alone, was already detected and referenced by the national intelligence services, is an indication on that the system is working, but that the individual did not carry out or gave indications on future illegal actions before his attack. In short, he was not yet a terrorist, but a law-abiding citizen or a legal alien in the country. On the other hand, with his entourage already known, should allow the authorities for a quick investigation and often make possible further arrests that will avoid further attacks. An individual not referenced by the authorities would be much more worrying.

Living in a modern secular country where the rule of law is one of the cornerstones in the society, is maybe a handicap when fighting extremist terror, but it is the price to pay to be able to keep the moral high ground in this battle.


Facts: This is Charles Støeng
Charles Støeng is a Norwegian security and anti-terror specialist with over 30 years of international experience. Educated in the French intelligence gathering community with an extensive experience from France, Europe, Africa, and for the last decade and a half, mainly in the Middle East. He is currently holding a senior security position in this region. Charles Støeng is a highly valued member of the editorial expert team at Defence and Intelligence Norway.

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