Country Report on Terrorism 2018 - Chapter 1 - France

Overview: France remained an important counterterrorism partner of the United States in 2018. It is a longstanding and important member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and the GCTF. France continued to conduct counterterrorism operations in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Mali, the Sahel region, and the Lake Chad region.

The terrorist threat in France remained significant, but diminished from its height in 2015. Terrorists inspired by or affiliated with ISIS perpetrated at least two small-scale attacks in 2018. The profile of realized attacks remains consistent with those seen in 2017, which were generally smaller-scale, opportunistic, and perpetrated by solitary local actors with little, if any, direct guidance from established terrorist organizations. Multiple violent incidents shared similarities to terrorist attacks but were determined by French authorities to have no formal connection to terrorism.

French law enforcement and intelligence agencies thwarted at least six attacks in 2018 and arrested multiple individuals on terrorism-related charges. French authorities arrested individuals from racially or ethnically motivated extremist groups and Iran-backed terrorist organizations, in addition to those affiliated with ISIS and other terrorist organizations. The government announced it would create a national counterterrorism prosecutor position and identified the internal security and intelligence agency General Directorate for Internal Security (DGSI) as the lead agency in all domestic counterterrorism efforts.

2018 Terrorist Incidents: Three small-scale suspected terrorist attacks took place in 2018:

  • On March 23, a 25-year-old French citizen born in Morocco killed four and injured 15 in the southern cities of Carcassonne and Trèbes before being shot and killed by gendarmes. After hijacking a car in Carcassonne, the attacker opened fire on police and then drove to Trèbes, where he opened fire in a supermarket, took hostages, and demanded the release of Salah Abdeslam, one of the alleged perpetrators of the November 13, 2015, attacks in Paris. Security forces stormed the supermarket and killed the attacker, who reportedly claimed allegiance to ISIS during the attack. One gendarme was killed in the attack.
  • On May 12, a 21-year-old Chechnya-born French citizen stabbed five pedestrians near Opera Garnier in Paris, killing one. Police responding to the attack attempted to subdue the assailant using a stun-gun, but after the device’s failure, shot and killed him. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack.
  • On December 11, a 29-year-old French citizen armed with a handgun and knife attacked the Strasbourg Christmas market, killing five and injuring 11. The attacker was shot and killed by police in Strasbourg on December 13. The Paris Prosecutor’s counterterrorism office opened an investigation into the attack and an ISIS propaganda outlet described the attacker as one of its “soldiers” shortly after his death.

Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security: In July, the French government unveiled a new counterterrorism plan of action to build on previous efforts and address issues related to inter-ministerial coordination, resource allocation, and surveillance of suspected terrorists. The plan identified the DGSI as the lead agency on all domestic counterterrorism efforts and called for the creation of a national counterterrorism prosecutor’s office. Pending legislation would require the office to operational by the end of 2019. The plan also created two new specialized units within the Interior Ministry, one to track terrorist prisoners upon their release from detention and another to identify key factors driving radicalized individuals to act, the latter unit intended to help allocate surveillance resources more efficiently.

The French armed forces continued Operation Sentinelle, a domestic deployment of up to 7,000 soldiers to enhance security at sensitive sites and large events throughout the country. While French officials and many independent observers view it as an effective deterrent, Operation Sentinelle complicates resource allocation challenges faced by a French military active in several overseas theaters. France maintained border controls with its Schengen neighbors in place since November 2015.

Most terrorism-related arrests were made by DGSI and involved individuals and groups suspected of having links to ISIS, but authorities also pursued Iran-backed and racially or ethnically motivated terrorists. On June 30, French and Belgian authorities arrested several individuals – including an Iranian official based in Austria – suspected of planning to attack an event organized by the Mujahedin-e-Khalq in Villepinte. In October, France imposed sanctions on two Iranian operatives and the internal directorate of the Iranian intelligence agency (MOIS) in connection with the covert terrorist plot. Authorities separately arrested 11 people during an October raid of the Iranian government-funded organization Zahra France, which the government suspected of supporting and defending the terrorist organizations Hamas and Hizballah. In June, French security agencies arrested 10 terrorists in Corsica over an alleged plot to attack Muslims. In November, French authorities arrested six individuals who the French government characterized as “ultra-right extremists” for allegedly plotting to attack President Macron.

Countering the Financing of Terrorism: France is a member of the FATF and its FIU, Tracfin, is a member of the Egmont Group. On April 25-26, France hosted an international conference to discuss CFT. Over 70 delegations attended the conference. President Macron highlighted France’s CFT priorities, including improved intelligence sharing, greater transparency on financial transactions, better monitoring of charities in order to prevent their abuse by terrorism financiers, and new regulations on financial technology. France continued its efforts to investigate and prosecute the financing of terrorism. In addition to multiple prosecutions of individuals charged with providing financial support to terrorist organizations, the government also indicted French-Swiss construction materials firm Lafarge in June for financing a terrorist enterprise and complicity in crimes against humanity for allegedly making payments to ISIS in order to keep its Jalabiya, Syria, cement plant running in 2013-14.

Countering Violent Extremism: In February, the French government released its “Prevent to Protect” CVE plan, whose 60 measures outline a strategy focused on education, youth engagement, detection, and professionalization and standardization of re-integration programs, particularly for minors returning from Iraq and Syria and for radicalized prisoners. For returned minors, the plan calls for long-term, locally driven counseling and support programs run out of prefectures in coordination with the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Health. On radicalized prisoners, the government formalized an approach based on a four-month evaluation of prisoners followed either by restricted isolation (for extreme cases) or placement in dedicated units with multidisciplinary counseling (for lower risk cases). The government also decided to expand from Paris to three additional cities a pilot “day center” program to disengage and reintegrate radicalized individuals on probation or recently released from prison.

Bordeaux, Montreuil, Paris, and Sarcelles are members of the Strong Cities Network.

International and Regional Cooperation: France is an active participant in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and the GCTF. France also plays a strong role on the UN Security Council ISIL (Da’esh) and al-Qai’da Sanctions Committee. The French government undertook joint counterterrorism operations with several EU partners and played an active role in counterterrorism capacity-building in other countries, particularly in the Sahel region, both bilaterally and through the EU. France has sent technical experts to various EU member states to assist in their implementation of PNR programs pursuant to a 2016 EU directive.