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Fighting Terrorism: French Edition

The French have been the subject of ridicule regarding their military capabilities. We, at some point, have poked fun of the French for their disasters abroad to the point where calling someone French insinuates the recipient of the slur is either weak, aloof, or both. Yet, to the contrary, the French military is quite capable to delivering devastating blows. Moreover, they’ve been at the forefront in combating terrorism long before our respective intelligence and law enforcement saw radical Islam as a threat to the United States; the 9/11 attacks electroshocked our national security apparatus into action. Then again, the lion share of techniques the French employ to combat terror would certainly be struck down as unconstitutional over here.


In 2006, Foreign Policy magazine had a great piece of how the French detect, neutralize, and investigate terrorism. In 1988, the then-top antiterrorist magistrate recalls being viewed as a “Martian,” when he spoke at the FBI’s training academy in Quantico, Virginia about the threat of Islamic terrorism. At the time, the FBI’s main concern was right-wing hate groups and environmental warriors, according to the publication.

So, how did the French become so good at fighting terrorism? Well, as FP noted, they were the first western nation to experience international terrorism on their shores that date back to the Algerian War of Independence from the 1950s and the terror attacks from Palestinian-based groups in the 1970s. The French quickly figured out that their judicial system and law enforcement apparatus was inadequate to combat this threat. By 1986, the French passed a comprehensive antiterrorism law to readdress these concerns:

[The law] set up a centralized unit of investigating magistrates in Paris led by Marsaud and later by judge Jean-Louis Bruguire with jurisdiction over all terrorism cases. Unlike normal French criminal proceedings, terrorist trials in France are judged only by panels of professional magistrates, without the participation of juries.

In the French system, an investigating judge is the equivalent of an empowered U.S. prosecutor. The judge is in charge of a secret probe, through which he or she can file charges, order wiretaps, and issue warrants and subpoenas. The conclusions of the judge are then transmitted to the prosecutors office, which decides whether to send the case to trial. The antiterrorist magistrates have even broader powers than their peers. For instance, they can request the assistance of the police and intelligence services, order the preventive detention of suspects for six days without charge, and justify keeping someone behind bars for several years pending an investigation. In addition, they have an international mandate when a French national is involved in a terrorist act, be it as a perpetrator or as a victim. As a result, France today has a pool of specialized judges and investigators adept at dismantling and prosecuting terrorist networks.


French police and intelligence services…operate in a permissive wiretapping system. In addition to judicially ordered taps, there are also administrative wiretaps decided by security agencies under the control of the government. Although the French have had their own cases of abuse evidence has exposed illegal spying by the Franois Mitterrand government in the 1980sthe intrusive police powers are for the most part well known by the public and thus largely accepted, especially when it comes to national security.

On the ground, these trans-Atlantic disparities amount to a big difference. Take the case of Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian man arrested in late 1999 at the U.S.-Canadian border with a car full of explosives. When U.S. authorities determined that he intended to bomb Los Angeles International Airport, they had no clues about his background. But Bruguire already had a comprehensive dossier on Ressam and concluded that he was connected to a network of radical Islamists based in Montreal who were possibly plotting attacks in North America.


As a result, the French are regarded as the elite in anti-terror operations in Europe, though they tend not to harp on this point, as these protocols doesn’t mean that they’re 100 percent safe from attacks. In July 2014, the French stopped a devastating plot to fly airplanes into the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and a nuclear power plant. What happened on the horrific night of November 13 tragically proves that no one is truly safe from those who use these tactics to fulfill a political agenda. Then again, those who mess with France often regret it. Granted, it’s smaller in scale and scope, but they offer up “lethal” results. In other words, “if the French are determined to hurt someone, they will” (via Politico)[emphasis mine]:

There is a French way of warfare that reflects the French military’s lack of resources and its modest sense of what it can achieve. They specialize in carefully apportioned and usually small but lethal operations


Emblematic of the French approach was France’s military intervention in the Central African Republic in March 2007. To stop a rapidly moving rebel advance into the country from the Sudanese border, the French attacked using a single fighter plane and two waves of paratroopers totaling no more than a “few dozen” who dropped into the combat zone in the Central African town of Birao. In military terms, what the French did was a pinprick, yet it was sufficient to break the rebel advance like placing a rock in the path of a wave. It was, moreover, a risky thing to do: Airborne assaults are intrinsically dangerous, all the more so when one has little capacity to reinforce or withdraw the lightly armed soldiers in an emergency. The first wave of “less than 10” soldiers reportedly made a high-altitude drop. The French military, moreover, did all this quietly, with the French press only learning of the intervention a few weeks after the fact.

France’s intervention in Mali in January 2013 also illustrated these attributes amply. For one thing, the French showcased high-end combined arms and “joint” fire and maneuver capabilities, meaning they deftly made use of everything they had at hand—special forces and conventional forces, tanks and infantry, artillery, helicopters and jet fighters—in an orchestrated and integrated fashion that made the most of every resource available.


What makes the French way of war distinct from, say, the U.S. way of war has to do with scarcity. The French military is highly conscious of its small size and lack of resources. This translates into several distinctive features of French military operations. One is an insistence on modest objectives, on limiting strictly the aims of a military invention in line with a modest assessment of what the military can accomplish. The French thus aim low and strive to achieve the minimal required. Whenever possible, they try to limit the use of the military to missions for which militaries really can be of use. Meaning, militaries are good at violence; if violence is what is required, then send in the military. Otherwise, not. The French military abhors mission creep and want no part in things such as "nation building."


Regarding its counterterror operations, France has a legal arsenal working in tandem with law enforcement to neutralize threats. They’re very good at it. Concerning the military option, France knows the limits of their power and the resources in which to achieve the goal, a notion that seems to have been lacking among those who call themselves “neoconservatives.” Democracy doesn’t accelerate if American troops are there, and nation building tested the patience of the voters to the breaking point. Such long-term, and arduous, social engineering experiments will probably never been put forward as a serious policy initiative again, given that we’re focused on a region of the world where the principles of democratic representation never flourished.

Yes, the Obama administration doesn’t have a clear strategy to tackle ISIS. That’s an enormous problem, but so are the apparent problems within the halls of the Pentagon. Given that defense is one of the biggest items in the budget after entitlements, it’s no shocker that the Department of Defense is bloated, and that the department’s “lack of vision” is also part of the problem. Apparently, the flaws that some see in the current decision/policy making process at the DoD are akin to the ones that the Goldwater-Nichols Act addressed back in 1986.

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