Were the Attacks in Paris and Brussels an Intelligence Failure?

Dr. Emmanuel Karagiannis

During 2015-2016, ISIS cells and ISIS-inspired lone wolves launched a series of terrorist attacks against European cities. On 13 November 2015, a group of ISIS assailants launched coordinated attacks on civilian targets in central Paris. They killed 132 people and injured 352. It appears that there were three teams of nine gunmen. Three suicide bombers attacked the national sports stadium during a friendly match between the national soccer teams of France and Germany. Then attackers shot at people outside several cafes and restaurants. Finally, gunmen entered the Bataclan concert hall and killed tens of people before detonating their suicide vests. Most of the gunmen were Belgian or French citizens. Next day ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks.

According to Edoardo Camilli, the Paris attacks constitute an intelligence failure for three reasons. First, there was a failure in the detection and prioritization of threats. Some of the ISIS attackers were known to French authorities; yet, they clearly failed to identity these individuals as an imminent threats. Second, their surveillance was inadequate and ineffective. The French authorities had information about Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who masterminded the attacks, but they did not manage to monitor his moves in France and Belgium. Third, the assailants were able to travel freely across the Schengen Zone. Member states failed to share information and coordinate their efforts. Moreover, the Turkish authorities gave information about Omar Ismail Mostefai, one of Bataclan bombers, to their French counterparts but it was ignored. Most of the perpetrators had fought in Syria and Iraq as members of ISIS. To sum up, the French security agencies had enough information about the perpetrators, but they failed to take action.

Following the Paris attacks, Belgian authorities decided to raise the terror alert to the highest level. On 22 March 2016, however, a group of ISIS-affiliated assailants attacked the city of Brussels. Two suicide attacks occurred at the airport and one at the Maalbeek metro station. As a result, 30 people were killed and more than 300 were injured. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks. The two suicide bombers attacking the airport were Najim Laachraoui and Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, both Belgian citizens of Moroccan origin. Soon it became clear that the two attacks were linked. Again, most the assailants had either travelled or attempted to travel to Syria.

Like with Paris, most analysts have described the Brussels attacks as an intelligence failure. Krishnadev Calamur has blamed the fragmentation of the Belgian intelligence community for the apparent failure to prevent the attacks; for example, the capital city is served by six different police forces. The Belgian capital had already witnessed an attack against the Jewish museum in May 2014; the perpetrator was a French national of Algerian origin who had spent some time in Syria and had been recruited by ISIS. Despite its long experience in dealing with terrorism, the Belgian intelligence community apparently failed to prevent the attacks.

Could the attacks have been prevented? Did they constitute an intelligence failure? There is no easy answer to these questions. The Paris attacks did not only lead to the tragic death of tens of civilians, but also signified the end of terrorism as we know it. While jihadi groups have attacked non-military targets in Europe again and again, this is the first time that multiple soft targets were hit in an unprecedented series of assaults. For instance, the London and Madrid bombings targeted the transportation system. To a certain extent, the Paris massacre resembles more the 2008 Mumbai attacks than any terrorist attack we have seen before. Despite tactical differences (e.g. the use of suicide vests in Paris), the two attacks were based on the same strategy: small teams of heavily armed jihadis simultaneously attacking many people in order to maximize casualties.

The multiple attacks against soft, but high-profile, targets in Paris indicate a level of organization and sophistication that clearly took the French authorities by surprise. The country’s intelligence community functions on a basis of a Cold War model that is largely outdated. For many decades, intelligence agencies focused almost exclusively on foreign governments. As a result, the classic intelligence cycle that cannot cope with the complexities of transnational Islamist networks. Human intelligence is usually poor and perpetrators increasingly use encrypted technology to communicate. Geospatial intelligence is not much helpful either. Most of the assailants had European passports and were members of local Muslim communities. Thus, there were able to benefit from open borders and utilized family networks to organize attacks.

The tragic events inevitably raised questions about interstate intelligence cooperation and border controls, the EU’s refugee policy, and eventually the whole project of European integration. The Brussels’ bombings came to confirm what many Europeans suspected after the November 2015 Paris attacks. The EU has failed dramatically to protect its citizens from terrorism. Many European countries dealt with terrorism before, although not always effectively. However, the Irish Republican Army, the Basque ETA, the German Baader-Meinhof group, the Italian Red Brigades and the Belgian Cellules Communistes Combattantes had either limited capabilities or avoided, most of the times, the intentional targeting of civilians.

Now European governments face a new type of terrorism which seeks to inflict massive casualties on the population for two main reasons. First, the European public opinion has been identified as the Clausewitzian ‘Center of Gravity’, namely the source of strength and legitimacy for governments in Europe. ISIS’s actions aim at the repetition of the ‘Spanish scenario’, that is, the electoral defeat of politicians who favor military action against militants – like it happened with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar following the 2004 Madrid bombings. If this never happens and there is more European military involvement in the Middle East, then a clash of civilization between the West and Islam could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. By targeting civilians, ISIS also hopes to spark a racist backlash against Europe’s Muslim communities and thus gain more recruits. It is essentially a win-win situation for the group and there are no easy solutions to that.

Under such circumstances, European government must lower their expectations for the prevention of violent attacks. The simplicity of the Nice and Berlin attacks have revealed that there is no effective way to prevent a determined individual from committing an act of mass murder. In fact, there is an endless list of soft targets that that can be hit by terrorists. If there is a lesson to be learned from the 9/11 events is that the evil of terrorism cannot be defeated with security measures alone. Contrary to the public’s perceptions, jihadi terrorism has been a phenomenon primarily concerning the Middle East. Successful attacks against Europeans have been the exception, not the rule. There are several factors that count for this. First, intelligence agencies have been largely effective in preventing attacks. Following the Paris and Brussels attacks, ISIS lost valuable human assets. It is not a coincidence that most recent attacks were conducted by lone wolves. More importantly, jihadi groups have been unable to recruit significant numbers of European Muslims. The huge majority of them remains law-abiding and peaceful.

Intelligence failures can be determined by the lack of information or the lack of information accuracy, which determines a distortion of the analytical process. This can occur either through ignoring or through the mistaken interpretation of data. The analysis of the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels suggests there is a new form of terrorism, leading to an unpredictable intelligence failure. The asymmetric character of jihadi attacks means that the success of combatting terrorism no longer relies just on the magnitude of available resources. Unlike other fields, the identification of the causes of errors of intelligence activity is especially difficult, given that their main resource – information – is difficult to quantify. Thus, one can legitimately ask the question – are we talking about a failure of the intelligence services or of a failure of public policies that determine the direction of action of these organizations?

Image: Bataclan memorial. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

3 thoughts on “Were the Attacks in Paris and Brussels an Intelligence Failure?

  1. I disagree with the term lone wolves used in the beginning of the article. The lone wolf theory refers to self radicalised people who decided on their own to commit a terrorist act. In the present case the terrorists were part of radical cells and known extremists groups. I the lone wolf theory could ever be applied, it is not for those 2 cases.


  2. Yes there was an intelligence failure amongst many agencies and nations. Yes there was a failure of public policies – not just those that directed the intelligence agencies.

    This is hardly surprising and is recognized by the terrorists, not just those from ISIS or AQ. They know one day they will succeed with an attack.

    Could any elected government in the West actually tell the public “One day a terrorist attack will succeed. That is the price we pay for our way of life” ?

    I only know of one government that said something similar; it was Norway’s Prime Minister after the Breivik attack.


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