France is currently tracking hundreds of suspects who may be involved in sleeper cells for various terror groups, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told The Associated Press in an interview this week.
The goal: to identify the moment when potential terrorists become radicalized, and stop them before they act.
“Four hundred targets have been identified by our intelligence services that are more or less sleeper cells, affiliated or in relation with al-Qaeda-type organizations, that can strike like the Kouachi brothers,” Cazeneuve told the news agency, referring to the two brothers who killed 12 people at the offices of French satire publication Charlie Hebdo in January before being killed by police in a standoff two days later.
A third gunman, Amedy Coulibaly, was also killed, but not before he took the lives of four Jews shopping in a kosher deli later that week.
Cazeneuve wants intelligence services to be given more leeway to monitor suspects’ electronic communications. After all, the internet has become jihadists’ primary recruiting tool. Cazeneuve travelled to the US Wednesday to try to persuade internet giants such as Google and Facebook to limit terrorists abilities to recruit and indoctrinate electronically.
“Ninety percent of those who commit terrorist acts fall into it after regularly consulting websites or blogs that call for or provoke terrorism,” Cazeneuve said.
This tool is highly effective at recruiting foreign fighters to join the cause in hotspots such as Syria, as well. of the estimated 20,000 foreigners from around the world who have joined the Islamic State (ISIS), roughly 17 percent are from Western countries. This makes Cazeneuve’s trip to the US to strengthen intelligence sharing all the more significant.
“We won’t be able to deal with this subject by always brushing the dust under the rug,” Cazeneuve said. “At some point the dust gets thicker than the rug.”
Cazeneuve admitted the Kouachi brothers had been under surveillance between 2001 and 2014, but nothing was observed which indicated they would go on their deadly rampage. Cazeneuve says intelligence services need more tools.
“When you have terrorists who keep a low profile for years and then suddenly decide to act — either to obey an order from large terrorist organization such as al-Qaeda or of their own volition — then you need to be able to monitor them on a long term,” the minister said.
France would like to treat promoting jihad online the way child pornography is treated.
“Everyone agrees now that legislation that prevents the diffusion of child pornography is protecting citizens from crime. It is the same for terrorism,” Cazeneuve said. “Calling for anti-Semitism, calling for crimes, calling for murder, calling for the killing of Jews or journalists — that’s not about freedom of expression. That is a criminal act.”
It’s not only the internet that worries officials, however; a growing network of imprisoned radicals is spreading the message in jails. That’s where Coulibaly and Cherif Kouachi met.
“You have a few of them who maintain that religious fanaticism, which very likely didn’t start that way, but they use it to have an excuse to be angry and do all these ugly things,” Kim Oesterbye, head of the Danish Prison Officers Union, told AP. “If we see people who change toward having more radical behavior, then we can report it.”
That’s what happened with the shooter in Saturday’s twin terror attacks in Copenhagen, but again there was no indication in the report that the gunman was planning to attack.