News reports this morning indicate that France averted a major terror attack in Paris over the weekend after the suspect inadvertently shot himself in the leg. Police discovered plans in the suspect’s car to attack churchgoers leaving church on Sunday.
The unnamed suspect was already known to French intelligence agencies and had previously been subject to police surveillance, making this yet another case of what I have termed “known wolf” terrorism. [The suspect has now been identified as Sid Ahmed Ghlam. See update below.]
The New York Times reports:
A 24-year-old computer science student suspected of planning an imminent attack on at least one church and of involvement in the murder of a woman was taken into custody in Paris over the weekend, the French authorities said on Wednesday.
The student was arrested on Sunday, and the police found heavy weapons, handguns, ammunition and bulletproof vests in his home and car, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said at a news conference on Wednesday.
Mr. Cazeneuve did not identify the student, nor the church or churches that he was believed to be targeting.
“Detailed documents were also found, establishing without any doubt that the individual was planning an imminent attack, most likely against one or two churches,” Mr. Cazeneuve said. “That attack was avoided on Sunday morning.”
The Guardian adds, based on a Le Monde article, that the subject was already on the French intelligence radar:
Le Monde said the man had settled in France in 2009. Cazeneuve said he had been under surveillance since 2014 when he made it known he wished to go to Syria to join jihadis there. He disappeared in February this year and was found to have spent a week in Turkey. He was arrested, briefly held, and given a warning on his return, but his profile was not thought to justify further action beyond circulating a security warning.
“Our country, like other European countries, is facing a terrorist threat that is unusual in its nature and size. Our vigilance and our determination are absolute and constant,” the minister added.
Events just of the past month have shown that their vigilance is far from “absolute and constant.” As I reported here at PJ Media back in January, the Kouachi brothers — who massacred 11 people and wounded another 11 in an attack on the satirical Charlie Hebdo newspaper — were already known to French authorities.
Cherif Kouachi had been arrested and sentenced to prison back in 2005 for his role in helping send fighters to Iraq to attack coalition soldiers. At the time of the attack, he was on both the U.S. and UK terror watch lists. It was later reported that Said Kouachi had been subject to surveillance orders since 2011 after he had returned from terror training in Yemen, but that the surveillance on Said had been stopped in June 2014 – just six months before the attack — because he was deemed to no longer be dangerous by security services. Similarly, surveillance had been stopped at the end of 2013 on Cherif because authorities believed he had disengaged from “violent extremism.”
As I I reported here in February, a man who stabbed three French police officers standing guard outside a synagogue in Nice had just been deported from Turkey to France a week before the attack because he was believed to be en route to join ISIS in Syria.
French authorities are not alone in these “known wolf” failures.
When I I first identified the “known wolf terrorism” phenomenon back in October, it was after two separate terror attacks in Canada in less than a week by two individuals already known to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Both had their passports revoked for fear they would leave the country for Syria to join terror groups there.
I noted at the time that virtually all of the American Islamic terror cases since 9/11 involved “known wolf” attackers.
Here’s my reporting on “known wolf terrorism” syndrome:
Oct. 24, 2014: ‘Lone Wolf’ or ‘Known Wolf’: The Ongoing Counter-Terrorism Failure
Dec. 15, 2014: Sydney Hostage Taker Another Case of ‘Known Wolf’ Syndrome
Jan. 7, 2015: Paris Terror Attack Yet Another Case of ‘Known Wolf’ Syndrome
Feb. 3, 2015: French Police Terror Attacker Yesterday Another Case of ‘Known Wolf’ Syndrome
Feb. 15, 2015: Copenhagen Killer Was yet Another Case of ‘Known Wolf’ Terrorism
Feb. 26, 2015: Islamic State Beheader ‘Jihadi John’ Yet Another Case of ‘Known Wolf’ Terrorism
In January, I gave a briefing on Capitol Hill sponsored by the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET) on “Known Wolf” terrorism:
In February, I conducted an interview with my friend and colleague Erick Stakelbeck on the phenomenon:
Even the New York Times picked up the term in March, if only to explain away the failures of law enforcement. The term was also used when London Mayor Boris Johnson slammed the UK Home Secretary for dropping surveillance orders on Mohammed Emwazi, who has been featured in ISIS videos beheading Western prisoners.
Even well-paid U.S. terrorism consultants are trying to cash in by suddenly discovering the “known wolf” terrorism problem:
The Soufan Group, a New York think tank, said a better term for “lone wolves” would be “known wolves”, given how many are already known to Western intelligence agencies before they strike.
“These individuals, acting alone or in small groups … have been on the radar of various agencies and organisations, highlighting the difficulty of effectively monitoring and managing people at the nexus of criminality and terrorism,” it said in a report this week.
For the Soufan Group, the most serious threat came from people with known associations with radicals and a string of past offenses.
What makes these many instances of “known wolf” terrorism so tragic is that it is never a case of the subject falling off the radar of authorities or escaping surveillance. In each and every case, they have either been deliberately removed from the radar after mistakenly being judged as not a threat, or, more amazingly, authorities were aware of the threat yet did nothing out of indifference or incompetence.
As the case in Paris on Sunday shows, we can expect the “known wolf” terror problem by Western intelligence and law enforcement authorities to continue.
UPDATE: The suspect has been identified as Sid Ahmed Ghlam.
The Local has more information on his background and previous contacts with French authorities.
Further searches of his student lodgings in the 13th arrondissement unearthed several more automatic weapons, described as a “real arsenal of military weapons” according to French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve.
Cazeneuve said evidence on his Facebook account suggested he was planning to target “one or two churches” in the Villejuif suburb to the south of Paris on that Sunday.
French prosecutor François Mollins said on Wednesday that Al Qaeda and Isis documents were also found in his flat and that he was in contact with an individual in Syria who is believed to have instructed him to attack churches.
The suspect was born in Algeria but came to France in 2009 to join up with other members of his family who were already in the country.
The suspect was a student from 2010 to 2012 at the IT college SUPINFO in Paris where an unnamed source told the French daily Le Figaro that he came across as a normal student.
French authorities deemed him not dangerous enough to open a judicial case against him, even though he was implicated in a violent attack two years ago:
Cazeneuve said that intelligence services were aware of the individual and had placed him under surveillance for several months in 2014 and 2015.
However according to reports the suspect did nothing to raise their suspicions or to prompt counter-terror police to open a case against him.
Whilst he is reported to have spent a week in Turkey, he is not believed to have followed the route of many jihadists by crossing into Syria.
No links were established between him and established networks that help jihadists reach Syria. However the DGSI did create a special file on the subject titled “S” meaning “state security”, so if any authority checked his identity they would know he had been surveyed and the level of danger he was ranked at.
He came to their attention after expressing his desire to fight alongside jihadists in Syria. Some members of his family and his partner have also been taken into custody for questioning, including his sister who was reportedly recently radicalised.
He was also known to the police after being implicated in a violent attack two years ago.
Reports indicate he planned an attack on the Catholic church of Saint-Cyr Sainte-Julitte in Villejuif. Ghlam is also being investigated in the murder of a 32-year-old Aurélie Châtelain, mother of a 5-year-old girl, who authorities believe was shot as Ghlam attempted to steal her car on Sunday morning.