Why Intelligence Overhaul Is Not the Answer for France

Head office of the Directorate-General for External Security in Paris, France. 

In the past two years, France has suffered a number of multiple-casualty attacks on its soil, most notably the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo shootings, the November 2015 Paris attacks, and the more recent July 2016 truck attack on a crowd in Nice. The November terrorist attacks, which resulted in the deaths of 130 people, led to the declaration of a State of Emergency in France, an act that granted the French government and police forces sweeping new powers to crack down on suspected terrorist activities. This State of Emergency has been extended multiple times since last November, including a six-month extension after the Nice attack this year. Since this latest attack, there have also been increasing calls for intelligence system reform in order to augment security and counterterrorism measures.

Organizational intelligence reform in response to an attack is not a novel reaction. In the immediate years following the September 11, 2001 attacks, the United States conducted major intelligence system reform, including the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). France, however, has had a different historical experience with terrorism than the United States. Therefore the creation of similar offices may not necessarily be the best way to combat terrorist threats in the French context for three key reasons.

1. It is difficult to compare the US intelligence community (IC) to those of other countries. Recommendations for change should be tailored to the French legislative and judicial systems, which are based on France’s historical experience with terrorist threats.

Following the Nice attacks in July 2016, French politicians renewed calls for intelligence reform, stating that the Nice attack could have been avoided. Although the French parliamentary commission and foreign policy writers often blame bureaucratic complexities and failed communication, it is difficult to compare intelligence systems between the six-agency French intelligence bureaucracy to the American system – which has seventeen separate agencies (sixteen under the ODNI). Furthermore, France has already attempted intelligence overhaul and increased integration within the past decade, which needs further study to determine the effectiveness of the change. The suggestion of creating an “NCTC-style” agency also misleads the public to assume that it would work in the same way and be as effective as the US NCTC, which may not be true due to differences in the French IC structure. To understand why intelligence overhaul is not the answer for France, it is important to understand France’s history with terrorism and intelligence reorganization.

France has a long history with external terrorist threats to the homeland, and over time the French government has given its intelligence agencies increased police and surveillance powers. Unfortunately, France is not new to intelligence failures, the worst of which being the heavy-handed approach the intelligence systems used during the Algerian War, action that did little to prevent the loss of Algeria (and that country’s subsequent independence) and the creation of the Fifth Republic under a new French constitution.

In the 1950s and 60s, mainland France experienced a wave of terrorism linked to the war in Algeria, including multiple bombings and police killings, which led to increased counterterrorism efforts up to and including torture and killing. After the end of the Algerian War and a short-term period of peace, there were waves of terrorist attacks in the 1980s and 1990s as a result of France’s “sanctuary doctrine.” During this time, France was considered a sanctuary for international terrorists, allowing foreign terrorists to stay in the country as long as they operated outside French borders and there were no attacks on France or its interests. This doctrine was also used so the French government could claim neutrality on international independence disputes, namely involving the Palestine Liberation Organization in Israel and the Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA) Basque terrorist group in Spain. This policy eventually backfired and the 1980s saw a revival of terrorist attacks within France, effectively ending the sanctuary doctrine and reforming the intelligence structure.

2. Change to an IC should be gradual, rather than a complete overhaul. Creating overarching agencies (which France already did in 2008) has had limited short-term effectiveness on thwarting attacks, and continuous overhaul would have long-term consequences.

From 1980 to 2000, France abandoned its sanctuary policies and its intelligence community underwent reformations in response to internal terrorist threats, including the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA), the Abu Nidal Organization (ANO), Action Directe, the National Liberation Front of Corsica (FLNC), and the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria (GIA). In 1981, the General Directorate for External Security (DGSE) became France’s main foreign intelligence agency, responsible for gathering intelligence on foreign threats to France. The Directorate of Territorial Surveillance (DST) remained responsible for internal security, and the Directorate of Security for General Intelligence (DCRG) focused on internal security including counterterrorism, counterintelligence, and surveillance.

Sorting out the IC bureaucracy is difficult enough, and many may easily reach the conclusion that France needs organizational intelligence reform to better counterterrorism coordination. Nevertheless, the DST and DCRG under the DCRI already have a wealth of counterterrorism programs and brigades which work directly with police and gendarme (military police) forces. After the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, the French government further centralized counterterrorism efforts by creating the Domestic Security Council to work alongside their Anti-Terrorist Coordination Unit (UCLAT) to increase counterterrorism coordination between intelligence and law enforcement. The last intelligence overhaul was based on a national decree dated on June 27, 2008, when the DST and the DCRG combined resources to create the Central Directorate of Internal Intelligence (DCRI), its functions covering domestic intelligence, counterintelligence, counterterrorism, and special police functions. Since 2008, the DGSE’s counterterrorism unit was given increased manpower and resources.

The French intelligence community has built resiliency mechanisms over a long history of counterterrorism, allowing for an extension into police and judiciary powers. In response to the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo shootings and other threats, the French government passed the 2015 Intelligence Bill. Despite being so named, the bill does not address recommendations for changing the structure or reorganization of the IC. Instead, the bill greatly increases their surveillance powers, including for extensive monitoring of communications, including phone tapping and computer hacking.

Following the November 2015 attacks in Paris, President Hollande addressed a Joint Session of Parliament, proposing a three-month extension of the state of emergency, changes to the constitution to allow the government to revoke French citizenship of convicted terrorists with dual citizenship, increased monitoring of foreigners and dual nationals, 10,000 additional security jobs, 2,500 judiciary and prison system jobs, and 1,000 more jobs for border patrol.

Less than a week after the November attacks, the French parliament confirmed the proposed three-month extension of the state of emergency. French Minister of the Interior Bernard Cazeneuve stated that 115,000 security personnel were mobilized after the attacks, and President Hollande stated that up to 8,500 new personnel will be added to the security services, which has resulted in hundreds of raids in France and Belgium through coordination under the solidarity clause in the Treaty on the European Union. Despite France’s long history of counterterrorism efforts and intelligence system reform and overhaul, new attacks still occur and will likely continue to occur in the short-to-medium term.

Police vans parked outside the Bataclan theater the day after the November 2015 attacks in Paris. Photo by Maya-Anais Yataghène / CC BY 2.0

3. Overhaul of the French intelligence community does not address persistent long-term counterterrorism issues, including the roots of radicalization and the lack of coordination and communication between European intelligence and security agencies.

Although the motive for the Nice attack is still unknown, the attack reignited the issue of intelligence reorganization. It is important to note that despite having shown signs of psychological issues and violent outbursts, the truck driver in the Nice attacks was not known to be a religious extremist or belonging to any radical group. Five suspects later stood trial as accomplices in the attack, three of which were charged with having links to terrorism.

Was Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel a quickly self-radicalized terrorist or a psychologically disturbed man taken advantage of by soldiers of the Islamic State? Would either one or the other have made it more likely to thwart this attack? If the former, the attack can be described as a “lone wolf attack” which by definition is difficult to prevent. Similarly, intelligence reorganization would unlikely ameliorate some of the root causes of radicalization and terrorism in France, such as economic and social grievances in Muslim communities and in-prison recruiting, aggravated by the rise of right wing groups.

Unsurprisingly, the call for intelligence reorganization in France came even before the Nice attack. The 2015 November Paris attacks came ten months after the Charlie Hebdo shootings, when two Islamist gunmen, Said and Cherif Kouachi, killed eleven people at the offices of the French Magazine and another five in attacks that followed shortly after. Inquiries into the November attacks led to discoveries of failed communication between not only French services, but just as importantly failed interstate communication, particularly between France, Belgium, and Greece. Rather than overhauling the French intelligence community, another option is to increase European coordination and intelligence across the European Union, a body which has risked losing its credibility after the United Kingdom voted to leave in June of this year.


The French intelligence community did not develop in the same fashion as the U.S. IC, and therefore has a different structure and different responses to terrorism-related intelligence failures. Intelligence communities are not static, but they do not – and should not – change as fast as threat levels do. It takes years to create the structure of an intelligence system and to develop interagency coordination and preventative and resiliency measures against terrorism. Longer term results will likely be from gradual change rather than overhaul. France has already tried intelligence overhaul, creating special liaisons and counterterrorism-specific agencies as recently as 2008. Despite recent attacks, it is too early to tell if this alone has had a significant and long-term effect on thwarting terrorist attacks. Furthermore, if there are consistent calls for intelligence overhaul after every attack, agencies of the IC would spend too much time worrying about adjusting to their new demands, creating confusion between branch jurisdictions and the loss of institutional continuity. This could also lead to longer-term consequences of creating an increasingly centralized intelligence community – namely the loss of specialization that smaller agencies have, and the decreased likelihood of strong parliamentary control and oversight, which are supposed to keep intelligence agencies in check.

Unfortunately, there is no quick fix to develop resiliency against terrorist attacks. Despite a number of changes to the French IC and a prolonged state of emergency, terrorism is still a very real threat, most notably now from the Islamic State. Similar to the groups responsible for the waves of terrorism on French soil in the 1960s, 1980s, and 1990s, the Islamic State started off as primarily a foreign threat to France, operating mainly in Iraq and Syria. The military air campaign against their home territory, however, has resulted in the group changing its strategy. As the Islamic State loses land and battles at home, it has aimed to increase recruitment and attacks abroad. Rather than a French Intelligence Community overhaul, what is needed right now in order to better thwart these attacks are renewed domestic policies and interstate coordination. Intelligence system overhaul may seem like a quick fix, but it will not work the same everywhere.

Olga Novitsky previously served as a graduate fellow at the Peace and Security Funders Group, a network of foundations and philanthropists who make grants that contribute to global security. Olga Novitsky received her MA from Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program with a concentration in Intelligence. She received her BA in International Studies  from Boston College. She is regionally focused on Europe and North Africa, and her research interests include intelligence, legal and illicit weapons trade, and non-conventional weapons proliferation.


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