26 May 2024 08:18 AM




After the ghastly terror attack in Paris

Vappala Balachandran was a senior external intelligence officer who was during his service connected with security cooperation with France. In a quick off-the-cuff assessment for The Citizen he asks why and how intelligence about such a major operation was not available to the French even when security had been beefed up since the Charlie Hebdo attack


MUMBAI: As this piece is written (14 November at 5-30pm Indian time) no organization has officially claimed responsibility for the dastardly attack killing nearly 150 in Paris on 13th night. This was the worst terrorist attack in Europe after the 2004 Madrid train attacks which killed 191.

New York Times( Nov 14) however  had said that IS  “claimed responsibility for the attacks, calling them ‘miracles’ in a statement released by one of its publications and distributed on Twitter — a claim that could not be independently verified”. However President Francois Hollande had directly blamed the Islamic State (IS) for the act of War. He did not state whether the French Intelligence had gathered any specific intelligence on the involvement of IS.

The Guardian(UK-Nov 14) listed out different  possibilities including the involvement of IS who could have sent a foreign strike team from  among those 520 French citizens now fighting for them in Syria or made use of local French strikers from among 250 “returnees”. Or it could have been an al-Qaeda affiliate which had claimed responsibility for the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks by the two Kouachi brothers connected with al-Qaeda in Yemen. The paper said: “Al-Qaida, it is worth remembering, is keen to regain the pre-eminence among the jihadi movement it has lost to ISIS. A spectacular attack in Paris would be one way to do this”.

In my lecture on November 3 to a Maharashtra Police workshop on “Deradicalization” I had told the officers that MI-5 chief Andrew Parker had issued a warning on October 28 on an unprecedented terror threat from “Islamic State and Al-Qaeda fanatics plotting mass casualties”. He had said that his service had thwarted 6 UK terror attacks in the past year and several overseas. However he also said that “the threat from jihadis was on a scale he had never seen in his 32-year career”. In fact this was the third public warning from Andrew Parker, the earlier ones being on January 9 and September 17.

Considering the close intelligence cooperation from European powers, it is highly unlikely that this intelligence was not passed on to the French. In fact our Prime Minister’s mass rally on 13th night at Wembley Stadium, London on the same night as the Paris attack should have caused considerable anxiety to the British security in view of Parker’s warning. However New York Times (Nov 14) quoted an American security official saying that “there was no immediate indication that there had been suspicious chatter or other warning signs before the attack”.

Many journalists had phoned me asking about the similarity of Paris attacks with 26/11. It is true that the attacks appeared to be coordinated and well planned. They had used AK-47, grenades and bombs like the 26/11 attackers. Both attacks were in the evening. But this might be just a coincidence. After all one can effect the maximum surprise in the evening when the victims and security officials are in a relaxed mood, office goers returning home or customers attending dinners or watching cultural events. This common methodology by terrorists does not mean that there were any connections between those involved in 26/11 and Paris attackers.

On 13th there were 6 attacks in Paris at 3 places or nearby starting with 2 explosions at Stade (Stadium) de France at 2030 pm. Some of the attacks were at the same spots, unlike in Mumbai. In Mumbai too there were 6 distinct attacks if we include Cama Hospital as separate from the CST (Train junction) killing. The first Mumbai attack was at Leopold Café at 2130hrs. The second incident in Paris was at 2130pm at “Petit Cambodge” restaurant five miles away from Stade de France. The second incident in Mumbai was at 2140 onwards at Taj Palace adjacent to Leopold café. The next attack in Paris was by 10pm at Bataclan theatre, south of the restaurant. The theatre was holding a show of American rock band “ Eagles of Death Metal”. Here several people were held as hostages. Meanwhile 2 suicide attacks were reported from the Stadium. By midnight the police said that nearly 100 people were dead in the Bataclan theatre. The casualties started rising rapidly. As this is written, the casualties in Paris attack were 130 according to BBC. It could touch 150. The final Mumbai attack deaths were 166 including 25 foreign nationals.

How did the French authorities falter again after the surprise Charlie Hebdo attack on 7 Jan 2015? That was a public challenge that determined terrorists could kill their victims with impunity even if they were under police protection.  The second message they conveyed in January was that they could still do the killing even if they were under watch by crime and intelligence agencies. This time it was the usual random killing like 26/11. It might have been revenge against renewed French attacks on IS. Only last week they had attacked an oil well in Syria operated by IS. On October 8 they did a targeted attack in Raqqa to eliminate Salim Benghalim, a French national fighting for IS.

Several questions remain: the identity of the 8 terrorists, all dead. How did they evade the sharp eyes of the French CT machinery upgraded after the January Charlie-Hebdo attacks? How did other European powers fail to detect any signs? Did MI-5 chief Andrew Parker who issued the public warning on October 28 see any signs affecting France? If so, did he warn them? Why did the government or private security officials fail to take the usual precautions of entry control to the Stade de France and Bataclan theatre? How did they allow terrorists gain entry with AK 47, bombs etc?

This incident has vital lessons for India. IS might have received much fewer recruits from India compared to Europe or even Australia. But our data of labour statistics working abroad especially in the Gulf who are usually targeted for joining IS is woefully inadequate. In several cases they were deported by the Gulf authorities on the basis of local suspicion. This is a serious cause for worry. The 2012-13 annual report of our Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA) counted only 18,000 Indians in Iraq. As against this, “Iraq Business News”  (May 17, 2010) said that “at least” 50,000 Indian workers were working in Iraq including some who had entered  through Kuwait or UAE when India had imposed a ban(2004-2010) on recruitment. So what appears on the surface is really not the correct position.