July 27, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Challenge of Tracking Terror Suspects

• On July 26, two men proclaiming allegiance to the Islamic State stormed a church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, France, and murdered a priest.

• One of the attackers was not only well-known to authorities as an extremist threat, he was wearing an electronic monitoring ankle bracelet during the attack.

• Traditional law enforcement measures such as house arrest are ineffective with suspects determined to kill and die for an extremist cause.

• France is struggling with an overloaded threat matrix and a legal system ill-suited to confront today’s terror suspects.


In what seems to be a near-daily occurrence, on July 26, two men proclaiming allegiance to the so-called Islamic State launched the most recent in a series of attacks to strike the EU. The attack occurred in the French village of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, when two men stormed a Catholic church during morning Mass, killing an 85-year-old priest and severely wounding a nun. The attackers were killed by police as they left the church, but not before they made clear they were the latest to answer the Islamic State’s call for terror. The attack occurred less than two weeks after a Bastille Day attack in Nice left 84 dead and scores more injured, and again highlighted the large gap that exists between tracking known terror suspects and disrupting terror plots once they are in motion. 

The Islamic State has long focused on attacking mosques and churches in locations where the group has some measure of control. The group has brutally targeted Christians, including Copts, as well as Iraqi Yazidis. In Europe, the Islamic State’s attacks, both directed and inspired, have mostly focused on non-religious venues such as cafes, concerts, trains, and airports, with one known exception. In 2015, officials stopped a directed plot to attack churches in France involving one of the leaders of the November 2015 Paris attacks. The attack in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray now adds churches to the growing list of places under threat in western Europe. On July 27, French religious leaders called for more security at places of worship, which poses enormous challenges. 

The shocking murder of Father Jacques Hamel during Mass was amplified by reports that, once again, a well-known extremist was involved. Some attackers are unknown to police, or perhaps known and classified as criminals with no suspected extremist connection. This was not the case in the November 2015 Paris attacks, nor is it the case in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray. One of the attackers, Adel Kermiche, had twice been stopped from traveling to Syria for the stated purpose of joining the Islamic State. He was detained from May 2015 to March 2016 after being arrested in Turkey on his way to Syria.

As part of his release from prison and subsequent partial house arrest, he was ordered to wear an ankle bracelet. He was allowed to leave his parents' house only during the hours of 0830-1200. This arrangement, common in traditional criminal cases, fails to account for the motivations behind the crime. Electronic monitoring and house arrest are not adequate deterrents for individuals determined not only to kill, but also to die for an extremist cause.

France has not only struggled to detect and identify the relatively large number of suspected extremists within its borders, but also to effectively deter and detain them. Watch-lists and monitoring instill a false sense of security, providing authorities with information after a terror attack occurs, but little deterrence or disruption prior to an attack. Surveillance is extremely difficult and costly in terms of time and personnel, and is only a feasible option in a fraction of France’s growing terror caseload.

The repercussions of another terror attack in France by an attacker well-known to police as a terror threat will be significant. The current state of emergency, extended after the Nice attacks, does not address issues such as ordering house arrest for someone who has demonstrated a clear intention to join the Islamic State. Preventing extremist travel to Syria is an important step, but is not the same as preventing extremist violence at home by people known to be trending in that direction.


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