Overview: France remained a key partner of the United States in international CT efforts in 2019. It is a longstanding and important member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. France continued to conduct important CT operations in Iraq, Libya, Mali, Syria and the Sahel region, as well as in the Lake Chad Basin.
The terrorist threat in France remained high but was lower than its 2015 peak. French law enforcement remained concerned with the threat of domestic terrorism inspired by or affiliated with ISIS. French law enforcement and intelligence agencies thwarted at least four attacks in 2019 and arrested at least 12 individuals on Islamist terrorism-related charges. French authorities also arrested two individuals linked to REMT. The new national CT prosecutor’s office became operational in July and is responsible for the investigation and prosecution of all terrorism-related cases.
2019 Terrorist Incidents: Four suspected terrorist attacks took place in 2019, with limited casualties. Below are the details on each of the attacks.
- On March 5, a prison inmate and his girlfriend in Condé-sur-Sarthe carried out a knife attack against two prison guards while in the family visiting unit. The girlfriend smuggled a ceramic knife inside the prison. She girlfriend died during the police response, while the assailant and two prison guards were injured. The attacker had pledged allegiance to ISIS.
- On May 24, a package filled with screws and nails exploded in Lyon’s city center, injuring 13 people. With the help of Lyon’s system of surveillance cameras, the suspect was identified and arrested three days later. The attacker was reportedly a 24-year-old male Algerian national who had pledged allegiance to ISIS.
- On October 3, a 45-year-old male employee carried out an insider knife attack inside Paris Police Headquarters, killing four colleagues and injuring one before he was shot dead. While the assailant had ties to radicalized Salafists and ISIS propaganda was found in his possession, he also harbored grievances related to his treatment as a person with deafness and muteness.
- On October 28, an 84-year-old male with ties to the National Gathering party attempted to set fire to a mosque in the southern city of Bayonne. The attacker shot two worshippers who caught him in the act. The attacker claimed he was avenging the fire of the Notre Dame Cathedral, which he blamed on Muslims. The government charged the attacker with attempted homicide but did not categorize the attack as terrorism.
Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security: On July 15, the government released its new French National Intelligence Strategy (2019-2024), and countering terrorism is the government’s top priority. The strategy breaks down the ongoing domestic terrorism threat into three categories: “projected” threats (from overseas to France), threats “inspired” by terrorist organizations, and groups that may be susceptible to “Islamist radicalization.”
The French armed forces continued Operation Sentinelle, a domestic deployment of up to 7,000 soldiers to enhance security at sensitive sites and large events throughout the country. France maintained extraordinary border controls, in place since November 2015, with its Schengen neighbors.
France has a fully operational inter-ministerial Passenger Information Unit (PIU) that uses API/PNR data to screen arriving and departing passenger data against other police and administrative databases. In accordance with French privacy laws, the data is accessible only by PIU staff. To query API/PNR data, police/intelligence services must submit requests, which are approved on a case-by-case basis. French agencies each have their own fingerprint and/or biometric systems, which are not always compatible with one another and do not cross-pollinate, potentially impeding efforts to identify FTFs returning to France or Europe.
On March 23, the new national counterterrorism prosecutor’s office (PNAT) was created as part of judicial reforms. The PNAT became operational in July and is responsible for the judicial investigation and prosecution of all terrorism-related cases. With a team of 27 prosecutors, the PNAT worked with the United States to incorporate U.S.-collected battlefield intelligence to prosecute terrorists.
French law enforcement is highly effective in handling terrorism cases. According to French government sources, France thwarted at least four attacks in 2019, including one 9/11-inspired terror attack. Most terrorism-related arrests were made by domestic intelligence and involved individuals and groups suspected of having links to ISIS, but authorities also targeted Shiite and REMT groups. To improve internal information sharing to combat terrorism, on February 18 the government created an interagency coordination office including 13 intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
Some high-profile terrorist cases in the judicial system include:
- On October 14, the Special Criminal Court sentenced the two main defendants of a female jihadist cell to 25 and 30 years in prison over a failed attempt to detonate a car bomb outside Notre Dame Cathedral in September 2016.
- On October 21, the PNAT completed its investigation of the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. The PNAT also received U.S.-provided assistance, including intelligence collected from the battlefield. The trial is expected to begin in 2021.
- Also on October 21, the PNAT completed its investigation of the August 2015 Thalys train attack, in which three U.S. citizens stopped the attacker. A date for the trial has not been announced.
Countering the Financing of Terrorism: France is a member of the FATF. Its FIU, the Intelligence Processing and Action against Illicit Financial Networks Unit (Tracfin), is a member of the Egmont Group. France is also a member of the Defeat ISIS CIFG.
In November, France published new guidelines on the risk approach, due diligence requirements for clients and their beneficiaries, the notion of politically exposed persons, and the obligation to report to Tracfin. France included countering the financing of terrorism as one of the three priorities to counter terrorism during its G-7 presidency.
France continued to investigate and prosecute financing of terrorism cases in 2019. French financial and non-financial institutions reported 95,731* suspicious transactions to Tracfin in 2019, with some four percent investigated for links to terrorism financing according to the French government. On November 7, the Paris appeals court determined that French-Swiss firm Lafarge had violated international embargoes as it sought to maintain operations at its cement plant in Jalabiya, Syria. The company was indicted in 2018 for making payments to ISIS to protect the plant.
Countering Violent Extremism: In 2019, the government continued to implement its 2018 National Plan to Prevent Radicalization. Presenting its one-year assessment of the plan’s implementation at an April 11 press conference, the government identified four areas where additional focus is required to counter terrorist radicalization and recruitment: prison, delinquency prevention programs, poverty prevention programs, and government programs to promote social cohesion.
In May, France hosted and co-chaired with New Zealand the Christchurch Call to Action Summit in Paris. Bringing together several countries and technology companies, the Christchurch Call aims to eliminate terrorist content online. On September 19 on the margins of the UN General Assembly, France also released a “Charter for a Free, Open, and Safe Internet” for governments and companies to endorse. On September 23, France then co-sponsored with New Zealand and Jordan at the United Nations the high-level “Leaders Dialogue: Strategic Responses to Terrorist and Violent Extremist Narratives.”
Following the October 3 insider attack at the Paris Police headquarters, the Office of Intelligence Services Inspection conducted an assessment of “radicalization among government officials.” As of October 21, approximately 67 police officers were flagged for possible radicalization. Of those, approximately 20 were dismissed, three were suspended, and two had to turn in their weapons. Bordeaux, Montreuil, Paris, and Sarcelles are members of the SCN. Alumni of Department of State-sponsored City Pair exchanges participated in a CVE symposium in Paris in April with counterparts from Belgium, Germany, the UK, and the United States.
International and Regional Cooperation: France is a founding member of the GCTF and actively participates in the OSCE. France plays a vital role on the UN Security Council ISIL and al-Qa’ida Sanctions Committee. The French government undertook joint CT operations with several EU partners and played an active role in CT capacity building in other countries, particularly in West Africa.
*Updated on July 29, 2020.