Paris's Charlie Hebdo-Prompted Alert Does Little to Defend City

  • France has been on state of alert since January attacks
  • Paris has 2.2 million inhabitants and 13,000 restaurants

The gunmen who mowed people down in cafes in central Paris and at a packed theater in the French capital on Friday were acting in a city on high alert since terrorists attacked satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket in January. 

That did nothing to stop them.

French special forces carry out searches as part of an investigation following the Hebdo attacks

Photographer: Francois Lo Presti/AFP/Getty Images

According to eyewitnesses, the men with machine guns walked down streets crowded with Friday revelers with aplomb to carry out the worst terror attack in over a decade in a Western country. Their action shows the challenge of providing foolproof security in a city of 2.2 million people with a bar or a restaurant dotting practically every corner, said Louis Caprioli, the ex-head of DST, France’s former anti-terrorism unit, and now an adviser to Paris-based security consultants Groupe GEOS.

“It’s precisely because sensitive sites have been protected by security forces since January that the terrorists attacked all of France,” Caprioli said in a telephone interview. “These people knew our habits. They knew these streets would be busy on a Friday night. There is no way to provide total protection.”

The Friday carnage left at least 127 dead and more than 200 wounded in near-simultaneous assaults on cafes, a soccer match and a concert hall. The attacks were carried out by “a terrorist army,” French President Francois Hollande said in an address to the nation. It’s the deadliest such act since the 2004 bombings at train stations in Madrid that killed 191.

‘Intelligence Failure’

“Though shocking, the attacks are not completely surprising,” risk analysts Stratfor said in a note to clients. “Multiple individuals from France and other European countries have traveled to Syria to join extremist groups there. As the Charlie Hebdo attacks have also demonstrated, there is a persistent risk of terrorist attacks within Europe.”

That said, Hollande’s government may draw criticism for what some analysts see as a failure of security.

“This kind of attack is an intelligence failure,” said Rohan Gunaratna, head
of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in
Singapore. France was “aware of the threat but did not anticipate an attack of this scale.”

After 17 people were murdered at Charlie Hebdo magazine and a kosher supermarket in January, the French government mobilized 7,000 soldiers to protect sites such as government buildings and synagogues. It hired more police and voted in laws giving it greater surveillance powers. 

More Security

Hollande, who Saturday blamed Islamic State for what he said was an “act of war,” pledged that security will be further tightened with more soldiers patrolling the streets of Paris.

There are 571 French residents associated with radical Islamic Groups in Syria now and 141 have died there, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Nov. 12. Another 370 have been arrested upon their return and 11,000 people are being followed, he said.

After the Friday attacks, France is deploying 1,000 additional soldiers to patrol streets in the Paris region, reinforcing the 30,000 police and military who have been protecting sensitive sites in recent months. Another 230 soldiers have been put at the disposal of local authorities.

Policed City

While armed soldiers in the metro have become a standard sight for Parisians, they can’t be everywhere. France has 35,000 cafes according to state statistical institute Insee. Paris alone has about 13,000 restaurants according to the Paris Commercial Court. Visitors spent 22 million hotel nights in Paris in 2014. The Paris metro has an average of 5 million rides a day.

"It’s very difficult to secure a city,” said Raffaello Pantucci, Director of International Security Studies at Royal United Services Institute in London. “It’s access to weaponary which would make this less heinous."

The attacks come as Paris gears up to host one of its largest diplomatic gatherings. The climate summit, known as COP 21, is expected to draw 80 heads of state, including U.S. President Barack Obama, Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff and China’s Xi Jinping, between Nov. 30 and Dec. 11. About 40,000 people are expected to descend upon Paris for the conference.

Illegal Guns

“When one targets civilians, it’s almost impossible to prevent,” Claude Moniquet, co-founder of the Brussels-based European and Strategic Intelligence and Security Center, said in a post on Facebook. “Don’t forget that every day security forces arrest or question suspects, and that at least 10 plots have been broken up since January.”

In addition, illegal guns circulate freely in the tough neighborhoods that surround many French cities, even if civilians in France aren’t allowed to possess military-style weapons unless they are a certified collector, and permits and background checks are required for hunting rifles and handguns. An AK-47 can be bought for 1,000 euros ($1,100) on the black market, according to police unions. Police seized 5,300 guns in 2014 of which 175 were “war weapons,” according to the Interior Ministry.

“Weapons are circulating very easily,” former French anti-terror prosecutor Jean-Louis Bruguiere said on BFM TV. 

Thibault de Montbrial, a French lawyer, said France needs to loosen some of its gun laws.

“Civil servants who are authorized to carry weapons should be allowed to do so off-duty,” he said on BFM TV. “That wouldn’t cost a euro. We could have had people able to fire back in restaurants, concert rooms, in stations and shopping malls. ”

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