Foiled church attack in France: why planned snooping law would not have helped

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Within hours of the revelation last week that a planned armed attack on churches near Paris had been foiled, President François Hollande and prime minister Manuel Valls publicly asserted that it underlined the need for the French government’s proposed new surveillance and intelligence law. This deeply-controversial bill, which gives wide-ranging powers to intelligences services to watch over the population, is currently going through the National Assembly, with a crucial vote due on May 5th. Yet an analysis of the case of arrested student Sid Ahmed Ghlam, who is said to have been planning the assault on two churches at Villejuif near Paris, raises doubts over whether the new powers in the bill would have made any difference. It emerged that Ghlam, who was placed under formal investigation on Friday for terrorist offences, was already known to the security services. Moreover, he had twice been questioned – the second occasion was in February this year – but released each time because officials apparently considered that he did not pose a serious enough risk. Some experts say the authorities should spend more time on prioritising which suspects to watch rather than on seeking new surveillance powers. Jérôme Hourdeaux and Louise Fessard report.

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On Wednesday April 22nd the French government revealed that a terror plot to attack churches near Paris had been foiled after a 24-year-old student was arrested in the capital. Sid Ahmed Ghlam, who was detained after he suffered a gunshot wound after apparently accidentally shooting himself, is suspected of planning with others to launch a gun attack on two churches in the town of Villejuif, south of Paris. He is also the main suspect in the murder of 32-year-old fitness instructor Aurélie Châtelain, who was found shot dead in her car at Villejuif on Sunday April 19th. Within hours of the dramatic revelation that a terrorist attack had been “foiled”, the government was proclaiming that the incident underlined the need for the highly-controversial surveillance law that is currently going through the French Parliament.

“We must always improve our intelligence capability under the rule of law, both now and in the future,” President François Hollande declared on Wednesday. “That's the reason why there is a bill under discussion, I hope that this bill is adopted.” The message was repeated by interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve on TF1 television news on the same day, when he noted: “We are in the process of putting in place targeted measures in the fight against terrorism that are designed to reinforce the effectiveness of the [security] services … the intelligence law is there for that.” Even more explicitly prime minister Manuel Valls claimed on Thursday morning in an interview on France Inter radio that “the intelligence law would have provided greater means to the intelligence services to carry out a certain number of surveillances”.However, a cold look at the facts known so far about the case casts doubt on this instant analysis by a government that has come under fire from human rights groups, judges, the internet community and France's independent administrative authorities over the proposed new law.

It is clear that Sid Ahmed Ghlam, a 24-year-old information technology student of Algerian nationality, was already in the files of the domestic intelligence service, the Direction générale de la sécurité intérieure (DGSI). According to Le Monde, he had been reported to the authorities by someone close to him in the spring of 2014 after he had expressed a desire to go to Syria. Ghlam was then called in by the DGSI for what is known as an 'administrative interview'. According to a report by the French Senate, the DGSI routinely carries out this kind of interview to “better determine the profile type of people involved in terrorist networks”. Neither the interview nor data from his phone apparently revealed any evidence of terrorist links and no further action was taken.

In February 2015 Ghlam spent a week in Turkey. After his return the student was again called in by the DGSI and placed under surveillance. But once again no evidence was found to justify taking criminal proceedings against him. “We carried out all the checks that should be made,” declared interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve. “Once these checks revealed no connections with terrorist circles, we are under the rule of law and under a rule of law we fight against terrorism by respecting principles of law.”

However, Ghlam was the object of a security file known as an 'S13' - the 'S' standing for 'state security' – corresponding to a “medium” security risk, according to the interior minister. Such a status meant that police officers should report it if they came across Ghlam during a search but should do so “without attracting attention”. This does not necessarily imply there was active surveillance of the student by the intelligence services.