Terror threat: How does France track 20,000 potentially dangerous extremists

The latest attack in France by a gunman who was known to be a potential threat has led to renewed focus on how the country keeps track of thousands of suspected Islamist extremists.

Terror threat: How does France track 20,000 potentially dangerous extremists

France's interior ministry compiles something known as the “S file” (the “S” stands for security) which contains anyone suspected of being a radical, including potentially dangerous leftist and far-right activists.

There is also a separate list, the File for the Prevention of Terrorist Radicalisation (FSPRT), for people judged to be terror threats.

Radouane Lakdim, the gunman involved in last Friday's shooting spree in the southern French towns of Carcassonne and Trebes, was listed in the S File in May 2014 and the FSPRT in September 2015.

How many are flagged as a threat? 

A total of 19,745 were listed in the FSPRT as of February 20.

The file includes people who represent varying degrees of threat, from someone who is reported by his boss for not shaking hands with women to a minor who has recently converted to Islam.

But there are more serious cases of people in contact with members of the Islamic State (IS) group, or others who have left for or wanted to travel to areas controlled by IS in Iraq or Syria.

Once listed, a person will remain on the list for five years but might not be actively monitored. The file also contains records of potential links between suspects.

It updates gradually, as cases are reported by the security services or via calls to the toll-free tipline that launched in April 2014

Who is on it? 

Most suspects are from four regions in France: the region around Paris known as the Ile-de-France, the area around Lyon known as Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes in the east, the southern Languedoc-Roussillon-Midi-Pyrenees region and the Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur in the southeast.

People from most socio-professional categories appear in the files, but the majority are young men from the suburbs around French cities where low-income immigrant communities, many from Muslim countries, are concentrated.

The problem for French security services is that most of the attackers in France over the previous four years had not been flagged by the security services.

“You have to remember that this is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Jean-Charles Brisard, president of the Center for Terrorism Analysis (CAT).

“Since 2014, 60 percent of the attacks in France were carried out by people who weren't in the file. The files are good, but even they don't show the full scale of homegrown threats.”

How are suspects tracked?

French security services manage the list of suspected extremists. Individuals on it are ranked by descending threat level.

The names at the high end of the spectrum are put under closer surveillance and brought in for questioning at the slightest suggestion they might be considering action.

But security experts have warned for years that France does not have the resources needed to put all of its suspected jihadists under round-the-clock surveillance. Following one suspect full-time can take around 20 police officers, experts say.

Investigators therefore depend on phone or internet interceptions to keep track of the highest risks.

“It keeps me up at night,” an anti-terrorist officer told AFP, “not having the right people at the top of the list and getting surprised by a kid we misjudged.”

What's the solution?

The question of how France can keep tabs on the thousands of individuals flagged up as Fiche S has not seem to have been resolved since France's recent spate of terror attacks began in January 2015, despite being raised after each attack.

While some on the far right call for them to be expelled, others on the right, notably leader of the Republicans party Laurent Wauquiez has demanded internment.

Some right wing MPs have called a Guantanamo Bay-style prison to be opened on a French island to house all radicalized individuals.

Others accept that French intelligence services simply don't have the resources to be able to keep tabs on all radicalized individuals.

“We do not have enough police to be able to follow each of radicalized individual because there are much more serious cases that take priority,” said centrist senator Nathalie Goulet.

France's intelligence services helped thwart 20 attacks in 2017 and two other planned atrocities this year.

But just like his predecessors President Emmanuel Macron is under pressure to respond.








US vice president lays wreaths at site of 2015 Paris terror attacks

US Vice President Kamala Harris and French Prime Minister Jean Castex laid wreaths at a Paris cafe and France's national football stadium Saturday six years since deadly terror attacks that left 130 people dead.

US vice president lays wreaths at site of 2015 Paris terror attacks
US Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff lay flowers after ceremonies at Le Carillon bar and Le Petit Cambodge restaurant, at which 130 people were killed during the 2015 Paris terror attacks. Photo: Sarahbeth Maney/POOL/AFP

The attacks by three separate teams of Islamic State group jihadists on the night of November 13, 2015 were the worst in France since World War II.

Gunmen mowed down 129 people in front of cafes and at a concert hall in the capital, while a bus driver was killed after suicide bombers blew themselves up at the gates of the stadium in its suburbs.

Harris, wrapping up a four-day trip to France, placed a bouquet of white flowers in front of a plaque honouring the victims outside a Paris cafe.

Castex attended a minute of silence at the Stade de France football stadium, along with Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, before laying wreaths at the sites of the other attacks inside Paris.

In front of the Bataclan concert hall, survivors and relatives of the victims listened to someone read out the names of each of the 90 people killed during a concert there six years ago.

Public commemorations of the tragedy were called off last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Last year we weren’t allowed to come and we all found it really tough,” said Bruno Poncet, who made it out alive of the Bataclan.

But he said the start of a trial over the attacks in September meant that those attending the commemoration this year felt more united.

‘Overcome it all’

“We’ve really bonded thanks to the trial,” he said. “During previous commemorations, we’d spot each other from afar without really daring to speak to each other. We were really shy. But standing up in court has really changed everything.”

The marathon trial, the biggest in France’s modern legal history, is expected to last until May 2022.

Twenty defendants are facing sentences of up to life in prison, including the sole attacker who was not gunned down by police, Salah Abdeslam, a French-Moroccan national who was captured in Brussels. Six of the defendants are being tried in absentia.

Poncet said he felt it was crucial that he attend the hearings. “I can’t possibly not. It’s our lives that are being discussed in that room, and it’s important to come to support the others and to try to overcome it all.”

Survivors have taken to the witness stand to recount the horror of the attacks, but also to describe life afterwards.

Several said they had been struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, grappling with survivor’s guilt, or even feeling alienated from the rest of society.

Saturday’s commemorations are to wrap up with a minute of silence at the Stade de France in the evening before the kick-off for a game between France and Kazakhstan.

It was during a football match between France and Germany that three suicide bombers blew themselves up in 2015.

Then-French president Francois Hollande was one of the 80,000 people in the crowd, before he was discreetly whisked away to avoid triggering mass panic.