From Criminals To Terrorists And Back? Quarterly Report: France, vol. 2



Quarterly Report: France, vol. 2 [2]

Four years ago to that day, two jihadist brothers, Said and Cherif Kouachi, affiliated to the terror group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), stormed into a building at 6 Rue Nicolas Appert in the 11th arrondissement of Paris. They were frantically looking for the offices of the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Despite the preparation and the training for terror operations, the Kouachi brothers got the address wrong but quickly recovered and headed for the number 10 where Charlie Hebdo was indeed located. Unfortunately they successfully entered the premises of the newspaper and proceeded in carrying out a bloodbath killing 12 people and injuring another 11 in just a matter of minutes. Coming out of the building, the two terrorists yelled: “We have avenged the Prophet”. Indeed, AQAP considered Charlie Hebdo a priority target since it considered it an enemy of Islam and Mohamed because it had among other things reproduced in the 2006 the controversial Mohamed caricatures that appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten.

Very quickly, the authorities learned that the Kouachi brothers, whom they had monitored for three years because of the terror risk they posed, were behind the attack. Unfortunately, because nothing suspicious had come up, security services dropped their surveillance of the two brothers just a few months before the attack. The Kouachis had a long history of criminality, from armed robberies to drug trafficking, and had been radicalised in jail by al-Qaeda figure Djamel Beghal who had planned to attack the United States embassy in 2001. In prison, they met and befriended Amedy Coulibaly who had a similar profile of a criminal turned jihadist through Beghal. A day after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Coulibaly killed a police woman in Montrouge and then on 9 January coldly murdered in the name of the Islamic State group and interestingly not al-Qaeda four people he had earlier taken hostage at the Hypercacher kosher supermarket in Vincennes.

In the four years after this spate of attacks, France witnessed 17 successful jihadist attacks, including the latest on 11 December 2018 when Cherif Chekatt, an individual convicted 27 times, also allegedly radicalised while in prison, also known to security services and on France’s terror watchlist, shot five people dead and wounded a further 11 at the Christmas Market in Strasbourg.

A pattern seems to emerge. Indeed, our research found out that:

  • 97% of jihadists that carried out the 22 successful attacks in France since 2012 were known either for radicalisation (82%) or by the police
  • 79% were either on France’s terror watchlist (61%) or on that of other European nations
  • Out of 78 French jihadists either arrested for terrorist offences, killed while staging terrorist attacks or fugitives from justice, 49% had previous convictions and 19% had been multiple offenders, just like Cherif Chekatt, with long track records of classical criminal activity.


As demonstrated by our attached report, there are some extremely compelling statistics concerning the jihadists involved in France that should be turned into policy recommendations.

First and foremost, the canard of self-radicalised “lone wolves” unknown to authorities has been debunked. A whopping 97% of jihadists that carried out attacks in France since 2012 were known to law enforcement.

The security services are therefore doing a very good job at honing down on the potential terrorists. The sheer number of people, 29,000, recorded on France’s “fiche S,” a watchlist of people considered a threat to national security, including 4,000 branded as dangerous, make it impossible for security services to monitor even a fraction of that, knowing that about 30 officers are needed per individual. The case of the Kouachi brothers show that monitoring certain individuals around the clock could work if done at the right time. Thus, detection works but preventing efficiently will require a huge financial and human capital investment.

It is likely that other European nations and, in particular the United Kingdom, could find themselves in a similar conundrum. Now, what to make of our findings?

A few policy recommendations:

  1. 15% of the individuals on France’s terror watchlist are foreigners: this calls for France’s following of the successful Italian model when possible, i.e. deporting all the non-nationals or dual nationals to their country of origin when convicted of radicalisation. Despite being at the top of the list of targets of Islamic State, Italy has not witnessed a single jihadist attack.
  2. The French government is refusing to look into this while leaving the field open for the far-right to suggest this. A measure that is supported by 83% of the French population.
  3. Focus on monitoring radicalised multiple offenders that may have a higher probability to carry out a terror attack (as seen in the case of Chekatt).

[1]The project is funded under PMI IMPACT, a global grant initiative of Philip Morris International to support projects against illegal trade. GLOBSEC is fully independent in implementing the project and has editorial responsibility for all views and opinions expressed herein.

[2] GLOBSEC would like to thank Olivier Guitta, managing director of GlobalStrat, for having greatly contributed to the introduction and conclusion through his ideas and suggestions.