It Takes A Lot Of Police To Monitor One Terror Suspect

Jan 12, 2015 at 5:36 PM ET

It takes as many as 25 police officers every day to monitor just one terrorism suspect.

That’s eight people at any given moment. Five or six to monitor the suspect on the streets, plus a couple of people to monitor him on the Internet and digital devices. “People work an eight-hour shift, so you do the math,” says Lorenzo Vidino, a security expert specializing in Islam and political violence. That’s roughly 25 police officers a day to tail one person, 24/7.

Said and Cherif Kouachi were two of three gunmen responsible for killing 12 people at the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine, in Paris last Wednesday. They were also just two suspects on a list of 5,000 people being monitored on some level by French counterterrorism officials, says Jean-Charles Brisard, head of the French Center for Analysis of Terrorism. To have 25 officers on the tail of 5,000 suspects would take 125,000 officers. That’s around 90 percent of the French police force.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Friday on France 2 news that the Kouachi brothers were both “well known by our services, the subjects of security interceptions, but we had no evidence that they were going to carry out a terrorist attack.” This lack of prior evidence kept security officials from putting the brothers on a high-priority suspect list. Could authorities have prevented the attack?

France monitors thousands of terror suspects on a daily basis. Cazeneuve said in December 2014 that there were more than 1,200 French citizens linked to jihad and in touch with ISIS branches in Syria and Iraq. That figure had doubled since the start of 2014. And that’s just ISIS.

The Kouachi brothers were not special. Around 200 people have similar profiles to the Charlie Hebdo attackers, according to Vidino. French security must constantly make judgment calls on whom to monitor, and how closely. The risk of missing a increasing threat is unavoidable. “A lot of what just happened in France is the most extreme and severe things suspects can do,” Vidino says. “Yes, you can make mistakes.”

The fact that the brothers were not being monitored closely enough mobilized French authorities into action Monday. Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced that he would deploy 10,000 troops and police Monday, in addition to the police force’s 140,000 officers, to increase security at “sensitive” sites around the whole country, including Jewish schools. “This is the first time that our troops have been mobilized to such an extent on our own soil,” he said.

France is fiercely protective of its civil liberties, which means that sometimes authorities step back when there is not enough evidence to prosecute a suspect—allegedly what unfolded with the Kouachi brothers over the last few years.

Police reportedly searched Chérif’s home in 2014 after observing him speaking with Djamel Beghal, an Algerian-born Frenchman convicted in connection with a 2010 plot to help a Paris train-station-bombing convict escape from prison. The officers found videos with radical Islamic content and Al Qaeda speeches in Chérif’s apartment, but that didn’t constitute sufficient evidence to bring him to trial. Chérif’s older brother, Saïd, 34, had ties to Al Qaeda in Yemen and may have been living in Yemen until 2012.

“It’s a complex issue in France,” Brisard says, speaking about the balance between surveillance and civil liberties. “We want to protect people against terrorism but without infringing on our judicial values.”

Vidino echoes this. “Just a few days ago,” he says, “people were fighting for their freedom online and offline. Today there are many changes in counterterrorism, and obviously the law has to keep up with those changes.”

Vidino also mentions that social media opens the floodgates of counter-terrorism surveillance, but it also creates more work for security officials. While new laws against against supporting terrorists online may prevent attacks, their enforcement will require additional support.

Anyone who praises a terrorist attack online now has to watch his back. Cazeneuve’s latest version of the penal code from Nov. 13, 2014, dictates that if you openly condone a terrorist attack online, it’s punishable with up to seven years in prison and a 100,000 euro fine.

A 30-year-old man from Strasbourg was arrested under this law on Thursday night for posting a message on Facebook celebrating the attack at Charlie Hebdo. His identity has yet to be revealed, but French publication DNA reports he will have to appear before the Strasbourg criminal court Monday for “electronically condoning a crime related to a terrorist attack.”

Turning to the public for assistance, the National Police of Paris tweeted Saturday that those wishing to report a social media post supporting terrorism should post a link to the connected account and tag it with #PHAROS, a French acronym that means “Platform Harmonization Analysis of Overlap and Orientation Alerts.”

“[Malevolent Accounts] To SIGNAL without sharing/RT/liking/mentioning, react swiftly on #PHAROS.”

Some users took #PHAROS as an opportunity to reveal accounts they saw as pro-terrorist:

And very quickly, people who had been hashtagged reacted: