Paris is a city on edge once again as France’s capital mourned another victim of fanaticism.
The Chechen-born French citizen who lashed at people with a knife, killing one and wounding four, had been on a terror watch list, but his ability to be able to launch an attack Saturday underlines the scale of the challenge France faces from Islamic militants, French officials say.
More than 2,600 suspected militants are on a watch list but tabs can’t be kept on all of them. “While the security services are excellent at identifying potential jihadists, the terrible lack of human resources means that they can monitor only a tiny tiny fraction of the suspects,” said counterterror analyst Olivier Guitta, who runs GlobalStrat, a London-based risk consultancy.
“The Islamic State attack in Paris’ Opera area is the 12th successful terrorist attack since 2013. It is the second successful one this year. France remains a priority target of the jihadists in Europe,” he added.
The last serious terror attack in France was in March, when a self-proclaimed militant killed a French policeman who’d exchanged himself for a female hostage during a siege in southwest France. The string of attacks since 2013 has left 245 people dead. Saturday’s mayhem was similar in method to a knife attack carried out last year in Marseille, said Loic Travers, a police union official.
French intelligence officials say they don’t have the manpower to keep even the 2,600 top-tier militant risks under around-the-clock surveillance. Aside from that watch list, they are also trying to monitor a further 5,000 suspects who have prompted anxiety but are considered less of an immediate danger - they are radicalized but have not as yet shown signs of thinking about violence.
The French aren’t alone in trying to match resources and manpower with threats. Other European intelligence agencies, especially in neighboring Belgium, are also overstretched. After each attack, security chiefs ask themselves what more they can do to prevent terrorism, especially the rudimentary kind of knife-wielding attack that was mounted in the French capital Saturday.
French lawmakers are sympathetic about the complaints from the country’s security services about the lack of resources and how difficult it is to track all of even the most dangerous militants.
Nathalie Goulet, a member of the French Senate foreign and defense committee, has said in the past, “You cannot put a policeman behind each of them. Especially since being reported to be in the process of radicalization does not make you a criminal.”
But Goulet and other lawmakers have expressed worries about the temporary nature of the surveillance and how quickly suspected militants can be dropped off the high-risk list.
She argues the French security services should maintain “a permanent file of people who had a link with terrorist organizations” much as the police do when it comes to sex offenders who are stuck permanently on file.
Information on assailant
Saturday’s suspect, who was shot by French police, wasn’t carrying any identification papers and hasn’t yet been publicly named by authorities, but French media are giving his name as Khamzat Asimov.
French officials say the man had no criminal record, was Chechen born and was naturalized as a French citizen in 2010. They say a friend of the suspect had been detained for questioning in the eastern city of Strasbourg recently.
Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the assault, but it remains unclear whether the assailant was inspired by the terror group or had actual operational links with IS. French intelligence services are now scrambling to establish what ties the man may have had with the group, if any.
It would be the first time an assailant of Chechen origin has carried out a terrorist attack in France, which hosts about 30,000 Chechens. Analysts have highlighted recently Chechen militants as a subgroup that bears watching.
Last year Belgian analyst Pieter Van Ostaeyen said that in his database of Belgian militants who’d gone to fight in Syria, 12 were of Chechen origin, with another 10 of Russia descent.
“It may be small, this ‘Eastern contingent,’ but it is likely underestimated, too,” Van Ostaeyen warned.
IS has actively recruited fighters in Chechnya, sending hundreds to conflicts in Syria and elsewhere. Some of the top IS commanders in Syria and and Iraq were veterans of conflict in Chechnya.
“Most of the ‘Eastern contingent’s’ networks seem to operate in a very covert manner,” Van Ostaeyen noted in a study for the Bellingcat news site. “They do not expose themselves with propaganda ... and even its individual members rarely show themselves off on social media."