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The Abdeslam affair: Intelligence failures or the flawed policies of a moralistic West?

Intelligence agencies may well increase their resources, they will prove ineffective without a serious review of governmental policies

Details revealed by the French newspaper Le Monde on the gaps, gaffes and blunders preceding the arrest of Salah Abdeslam, a suspected accomplice in the November 2015 Paris attacks, are yet another example of how certain European intelligence agencies are having trouble adapting to the unprecedented challenges of recent months and years.

According to the French daily, French and Belgian intelligence services could have completed their mission with much greater success had certain stumbling blocks and slipups been avoided.

The article contends that European intelligence services, no matter how powerful, are bound to be fallible. A parliamentary report on the January and November 2015 attacks in Paris, issued at the beginning of the month and suggesting a major overhaul of French intelligence services, is yet another indication of the pressing need for France to review its security capacities.

While putting too great an emphasis on the “Abdeslam case” would be misleading to those who consider it a one-off exception, the “example” is nonetheless fraught with bogus details which do little to restore the tarnished image of the intelligence community. The fact is, once thought to be all-powerful, intelligence services were completely off the mark.

The question of resources: a false line of reasoning

The shocking events of 13 November 2015, the so-called Bataclan theatre massacre, explain in large part the focus on Salah Abdeslam. His presumed responsibility in the 22 March bombings at Brussels Airport, at Zaventem, and Maelbeek metro station, which occurred just after his arrest in the Belgian town of Molenbeek, served to heighten this emphasis on the timing of the events.

Indeed, the fact that the barbaric acts of 13 November took place within a year of the January 2015 shootings at Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris was disconcerting, to say the least.

Even more difficult to understand is how the shortcomings of Belgian intelligence agencies may have directly or indirectly allowed the Brussels bombings to occur a mere four months later. As of now, it remains unclear as to whether Abdeslam was involved in the organising these latter attacks. If he were, however, the corroboration would send seismic ripples through intelligence circles – though hardly of a magnitude to trigger a tsunami.

The “French intelligence community,” including the General Directorate for External Security (DGSE), the Directorate for Defence Protection and Security (DPSD), the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DRM), the General Directorate for Internal Security (DGIS), the National Directorate for Intelligence and Customs Investigations (NDICI), and the Treatment of Intelligence and Actions against Illicit Financial Circuits (TRACFIN), has greatly benefited from the French government’s broadened legislative capacities and its increased funding of the “fight against terror,” particularly so since the January 2015 attacks.

In early 2015, French intelligence counted roughly 13,000 people, over 6,000 of whom were DGSE agents. Today its annual budget is between 1.5 and 2 billion euros. Intelligence in Belgium is on a much smaller scale, the total budget of its General Intelligence and Security Service (GISS) totaling 100 million euros in early 2015, with 10 times fewer agents - between 500 and 600 employees - working for state security.

The gap in terms of the funding capacities of France and Belgium is therefore a sizeable one. Yet the countless mistakes in the failed attempts to arrest Abdeslam cannot be explained by this alone.

Too much information

Details revealed by Le Monde article, along with facts reported by other media, bring to light what could be wrongly interpreted as two opposing realities.

On one hand, French and Belgian intelligence services, disposing of an abundance of resources and actively pursuing a suspect spotted in at least six countries over the course of 2015, were met, paradoxically, with a succession of failures; their active efforts, including wiretapping, search warrants and round-the-clock investigations, would ultimately lead to a surplus of information that would do little to help clear the trail.

On the other hand, we are given to understand that their preliminary groundwork did in fact allow investigators to move forward and to eventually capture Salah Abdeslam and his accomplices, though not quickly enough to prevent the Brussels tragedy. Statements made by intelligence agents and investigators that Salah Abdeslam’s “ordinary physique” didn’t make the task of identifying him any easier, for example, are poor justifications of a glaring truth: the fact that resources and data, though not necessarily an obstacle to investigations, are not always of help.

It is particularly surprising to note that intelligence agents seemed to be on the right track - tracing, for example, the GPS coordinates of a luxury car foolishly rented by a certain Mohammed B. at the time of the November attacks to his multiple cell phone numbers and, ultimately, to the safe houses which led to the arrest of Salah Abdeslam – without, however, preventing the carnage in Brussels. This in itself clearly indicates the need to relativise the Abdeslam case, no matter how serious the affair.

Beyond the catchphrase of 'Islamic jihadism'    

In the months to come there will be a number of new controversies and false revelations emphasising once again the failures of internal intelligence (in Belgium, for example), backed by the usual “resources vs. effectiveness” paradox.

At the same time, the reopening of that old Pandora’s Box, namely that how-to guide on understanding jihadism (the failure or non-failure of European integration models, immigration debates neglecting to address demographic realities, and so on), will let loose a flood of particulars, many and various, perhaps, yet unsatisfactory even so.

Ultimately, we would be better off trading self-importance for humility, to admit that the actions and crimes for which Abdeslam and his consorts are being held accountable are, in part, a perpetuation of the preexisting grievances found in Western countries.

The writer of these lines supports the view that it is not a “radicalisation of Islam” (Gilles Kepel) we are currently facing, but rather an “Islamisation of radicalism” (Olivier Roy), to cite that hot-potato issue of French media today.

Additionally, it must be noted that the radicalism in question is decked out with trappings unrelated to religion. Indeed, the non-religious background of many of today’s known jihad converts suggests that, beyond the religious-Islamic substrate supposedly motivating their acts of violence, attacks like the ones committed in 2015 and 2016 can also be seen as the manifestation of a desire to do something spectacular.

After all, why should the attacks claimed by IS and other such movements be viewed any differently than those formerly committed by the Red Brigades in Italy, or by the anarchist movements of the 19th and 20th centuries? Salah Abdeslam probably doesn’t understand the texts of the Koran any better than he does those of Proudhon, but even if he did, his violent impulses are much more likely to have stemmed from the writings of the father of anarchism than from any given religious text.

Understanding the enemy

Today’s world is faced with the troubling reality of a generational schism of young people wanting to leave their mark on history, and who benefit from handmade, but lethal, technologies and skills, to boot. But to try to identify the mastermind of this Machiavellian plan (Allah, the Prophet Mohammed, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) is to stray from the main point, which, in a nutshell, comes down to the deficiencies of a “Western model” trying to find its feet.

The failure of European integration models, and particularly those of France and Belgium, explains in part this radicalisation, though naturally it does not justify it.

In 2003, the “crusades” of a number of Western powers against certain Muslim countries (i.e. Afghanistan and Iraq), combined with simplistic tendencies toward moralistic interventionism (the 2011 military campaign in Libya, for instance, and those in Syria, from 2011 to the present day), gave rise to a sense of political unrest that would lead to a spread of violence and instability that would eventually affect Europe, too. The dubious role of certain strategic allies wooed by the West, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, would keep such pockets of instability alive and well.

The fact is, intelligence agencies may well increase their resources and capabilities, but they will continue to be ineffective unless an honest effort is made in decision-making circles to understand the errors leading up to their misguided foreign and national policies.  

As no matter how barbaric leaders of Islamic State and other such groups may seem, they are well aware of the potential frustration stemming from today’s growing “rejection of the West” movements, and they have caught our governments off-guard.

Therefore, in order to address problems of homeland security, Western countries have to recognise the fact that policies based on moralistic interventionism are an integral part of the problem.

– Barah Mikaïl is the founder and director of Stractegia, a Madrid-based center for research and strategic action in North Africa and the Middle East providing analysis of political, economic and social perspectives in Spain. He is also an Associate Professor of Geopolitics at Saint Louis University in Madrid, specialised on Middle East and North Africa issues, and a former senior researcher on Middle East issues at the Fundación para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Diálogo Exterior (FRIDE, Madrid, 2012 -2015) and the Paris-based Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques (IRIS, 2002-2011). He has written several books and publications, including, most recently, Une nécessaire relecture du “Printemps arabe” [A Necessary Re-reading of the “Arab Spring”], Editions du Cygne, 2012.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: archive photo of Salah Abdeslam, suspect in the Paris November 2015 attacks and the Brussels bombings at Zaventem Airpot (AFP).