Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 19, 2006

Lessons from the French counterterror model

Filed under: International HLS,Investigation & Enforcement — by Christian Beckner on January 19, 2006

Marc Perelman has an interesting new article in Foreign Policy on the French model for homeland security and counterterrorism. Some key sections:

Like most European countries, France favors a judicial approach over the U.S.-style “war on terror.” But the French blend of aggressive prosecution, specialized investigators, and intrusive law enforcement is unique in Europe. And though the policy has gone through trial and error, the early warning helped fashion what has proven to be a fairly successful—though controversial—counterterrorist response.


The smooth relationship between France’s judiciary and its intelligence world is unique among Western nations. Even after 9/11, a proposal to create a separate domestic intelligence service failed to gather momentum in Washington. In Britain, the MI5 has no judicial competence. Yet, since the 1990s, the French domestic intelligence service has had the ability to ask magistrates to open investigations. Judges can in turn assist the agency by ordering warrants, wiretaps, and subpoenas.

That is in part because the French authorities see petty crimes as a window into a terrorist network, as its members mostly operate in compartmented cells, each contributing to a larger conspiracy known only to the masterminds. To unravel complex plots, France has used its extended police powers to monitor mosques and suspicious individuals and eventually expel those deemed too dangerous. It has relied both on human intelligence, notably police and intelligence agents of Muslim descent, and on technological means to break cases. A new bill adopted in December increases police surveillance methods—especially video and communications—and stiffens prison sentences for convicted members of a terrorist plot.

Many elements of this French model are not replicable in the United States due to such factors as the separation of powers between the executive and judicial branches. But there are clearly things that US homeland security and counterterrorism officials can learn from the French model, such as:

  • The willingness to view the judicial system as a key enabling tool, rather than an inconvenience;
  • The enforcement of certain types of petty crime as a window into terror activity; and
  • The fact that small, empowered teams are almost always better than a large bureaucracy.

It should be noted that there are also things that France can learn from the United States in the war on terror, particularly in terms of integrating immigrant communities into society – a relative strength that we hopefully will not “unlearn” in the near future.

Definitely read the whole article. And for more on this issue, see this article by Dana Priest on US-French intelligence cooperation from last July.

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1 Comment »


Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Blog Archive » Sec. Chertoff in Europe this week

January 24, 2006 @ 9:47 am

[…] For more on this topic, see this recent post about a Foreign Policy story that discusses the French counterterrorism model and this Washington Post story from last July. […]

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