National Security, Values and the Terrorist Threat: Lessons From the 9/11 and French Attacks

The terrorist murders of 17 persons in France last week have led to a massive outpouring of unity and resolve. An estimated 1.2 to 1.6 million persons, accompanied by 40 heads of state, rallied in solidarity in Paris, and 3.7 million gathered throughout the nation. The French have rightfully treated the attacks on satirists, shoppers at a kosher supermarket, and a police officer as a direct assault on the values of free speech, religious tolerance and social order. Even more than the March 11, 2004, Madrid train bombings, the November 2, 2004, murder of Dutch film director Theo Van Gogh in Amsterdam, and the July 7, 2005, London subway and bus bombings, the events of last week symbolize the size and stakes of the challenge posed by jihadists for Europe and Western democracies more broadly. Driving home the point, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered to welcome "home" all French and European Jews who wished to migrate to Israel due to rising anti-Semitic violence in Europe. The U.S. response to the 9/11 attacks will invariably serve as a reference point as Europe struggles to stem the problem of radicalization and home-grown terrorists. This short essay highlights some parallels between and lessons from the U.S. and French attacks.

At the outset, it is important to acknowledge the "known unknowns" regarding the attacks and the terrorists who perpetrated them. In particular, we do not know if the terrorists -- Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, who attacked Charlie Hebdo magazine; Amedy Coulibay, the kosher market killer; or Hayat Boumeddienne, Coulibay's girlfriend, who fled France prior to the attacks -- relied on a larger group of co-conspirators in France, or the extent to which al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or the Islamic State supported or directed the attacks. In addition, there are stark differences between 9/11 and the killings in France. The French terrorists were "home-grown" radicals, born in Paris and its suburbs. Fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 terrorists were Saudi Arabian, the rest Egyptian, United Arab Emirates and Lebanese citizens, who entered and remained in the United States through various forms of immigration and document fraud. French intelligence services knew of the jihadist ties of the Kouachis and Coulibay. By contrast, only three of the 9/11 hijackers had been identified as terrorists by U.S. officials, although, according to the 9/11 Commission Report, 15 of the 19 had been "potentially vulnerable to interception" based on their travel methods and documents.

In recent days, the press has reported that French officials believe that sleeper terrorist cells have been activated in France, putting law enforcement at particular risk and the nation further on edge. To state the obvious, France needs to respond decisively to the threats faced by its citizens in the short term and long term. In the words of the 9/11 Commission, it needs to summon "all elements of national power: diplomacy, intelligence, covert action, law enforcement, economic policy, foreign aid, public diplomacy, and homeland defense" in response to this threat. In the aftermath of 9/11, Harvard Law Professor Philip Heymann set forth three criteria for evaluating the success of a national security strategy. It must: (1) substantially reduce the threat and harm of terrorism; (2) diminish public fear and anger, which could lead to counter-productive responses; and (3) respect civil rights and foster national unity.

The 9/11 Commission sharply criticized U.S. intelligence capabilities and collection, including from foreign governments, and the government's failure to share and analyze intelligence from all sources available to it. By contrast, France and the United States exchanged information on the French terrorists, who were on U.S. watch lists. Following 9/11, there was an expert consensus that terrorist groups preferred to recruit persons without criminal records, without immigration problems, or who are otherwise unlikely to come to the attention of the police or security services. Yet the Kouachis and Coulibay were decidedly not "clean" operatives: Their jihadist sympathies, ties and activities were well-documented. They had been implicated in terrorist plots, at least one but probably both Kouachi brothers had spent time in Yemen, and Chérif Kouachi had served prison time in France. For whatever reason, French officials did not view the Kouachis or Coulibay as sufficient threats to keep them under surveillance. Perhaps more surprisingly, they did not prevent Coulibay, a terrorist with known ties to the Kouachis, from attacking the kosher supermarket after the Charlie Hebdo murders. French security services -- which report being overwhelmed by the number of potential French jihadists, including returning citizens from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq -- should be afforded whatever resources are necessary to address this threat.

In refining and implementing its national security strategy, France must be particularly vigilant in upholding its core values. It should not compromise its principles as part of a misguided strategy to pacify either home-grown jihadists or right-wing extremists. The challenge is not one of "recalibrating" the line between security and rights but one of recognizing that rights further security and national unity. Conversely, rights violations will lend support to terrorist narratives and risk alienating the very communities that security and law enforcement services must rely upon for intelligence and cooperation in this struggle. Minority communities -- in which terrorists may hide -- must be brought "out of the shadows" and enlisted in support of a shared priority in which they have an immense stake.

The post-9/11 US strategy -- borne of inadequate intelligence and fear of imminent attacks -- has foiled additional terrorist plots. However, it also included initiatives that yielded little in the way of actionable intelligence, offended U.S. values, and did not win "hearts and minds" at home or abroad. The registration of 83,519 men from 25 nations and the arrest and detention (many for protracted periods and in abusive conditions) of 768 non-citizens of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent were particularly offensive and counter-productive. In addition, the national security framework lost credibility as 6,400 persons were referred for terrorist-related prosecutions in the two years following 9/11, and the federal government justified measures like the interdiction and detention of Haitian boat people as security imperatives.

"Profiling" became a particularly contentious issue following 9/11. Many counter-terror experts argued that profiling based on religion, ethnicity, national origin or immigration status was potentially harmful from a security standpoint and, at best, a waste of time. However, they deemed "intelligence"-based profiling an important and effective law enforcement tool. Given the responsiveness of terrorists to law enforcement and counter-terror strategies, however, they cautioned that profiles must be regularly updated.

Finally, it can be reductionist to attribute the radicalization of certain youth in Western societies solely to the failure of integration. Among other factors, skillful, well-organized indoctrination also strongly contributes to radicalization in many cases. Still, integration remains an important priority in its own right and as an antidote to radicalization. Scholars have long recognized the challenges faced by youth who seek to develop their identities in the "in-between" space between their communities and the cultures of their immigrant parents. Certain youth face a heightened risk of "downward assimilation" -- that is, assimilation into negative, self-defeating features of their communities. Other scholars emphasize the need for "patriotic assimilation" -- that is, the adoption by immigrants and their progeny of the civic values and heritage of their nation.

The French terrorists fit uneasily into these conceptual categories. They might be seen as exemplifying a particularly viral form of downward assimilation, although they seem less to have assimilated into an "oppositional" French sub-culture than to have identified with a transnational ideology. Certainly, if they were ever "patriotically" assimilated, they came to reject and hate their native country and its values as they perceived them. That said, an integration framework has the merit of highlighting the social alienation and disenfranchisement of certain youth, and the need for intervention well before radicalization occurs. As such, it speaks to the limits of counter-terror or law enforcement strategies in preventing home-grown terrorism. It points to the need for the hard work of instilling a sense of community, values and belonging into youth who are desperate for meaning in their lives and are at risk of finding it in all the wrong places.