Right under the noses of French intelligence agencies wielding some of the strongest surveillance powers on Earth, a group of eight terrorists operating under the banner of the Islamic State -- one of the most scrutinized organizations on the planet -- somehow managed to meticulously plan, coordinate and execute the deadliest terror attack seen in Europe in more than a decade. This played out only 10 months after the notorious Charlie Hedbo attack, which occasioned vows of unrestrained vigilance.
How could this have happened?
Ask ex-CIA Director James Woolsey and the blame falls squarely on one man: Edward Snowden. In Woolsey’s accounting, Snowden, the former U.S. National Security Agency contractor who leaked a vast trove of classified documents detailing the extent and workings of the American intelligence apparatus, now has “blood on his hands” and is responsible for the atrocities visited on Paris on Friday evening. The attacks left at least 129 people dead and hundreds wounded, many of them critically.
It was Snowden’s unprecedented leak of top secret information about how U.S. and U.K. spy agencies monitor and track people around the world, Woolsey said, that led terrorist groups like ISIS and al Qaeda to adapt their methods of communication to avoid surveillance, adopting more secure channels, including those offering end-to-end encryption.
Woolsey is not alone in that view. Former Bush White House spokeswoman and current Fox TV presenter Dana Perino tweeted: “F Snowden. F him to you know where and back.” Those now blaming Snowden echo similar comments made 10 months ago after the Charlie Hedbo attacks.
Also, F Snowden. F him to you know where and back.
— Dana Perino (@DanaPerino) November 14, 2015
But as journalist Glenn Greenwald, who has worked with Snowden to expose NSA secrets, has noted, that analysis collides with the fact that, long before Snowden’s leaks, intelligence agencies around the world failed to stop multiple terror threats, including the Bali bombing in 2002, the Madrid train bombing in 2004, the 7/7 London attacks in 2005 and the coordinated series of attacks in Mumbai in 2008. Not least, the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing took place in the midst of intense security at the leading annual event in a major American city, just months before Snowden released the first of enormous trove of documents.
The government response to all of these attacks has been uniform, calling to increase the powers of intelligence agencies, handing them greater abilities to track, surveil and monitor anyone they believe is suspicious.
After the Charlie Hebdo attack in January, France did just that, introducing some of the most draconian surveillance laws in the Western world, allowing security agencies to tap phones and emails without seeking permission from a judge. The country already had a law since 2013 allowing the police and spy agencies monitor Internet usage in real time without prior legal authorization.
“Just announcing new crackdowns and measures has a very real effect. You know that from message patterns, you can see that in the chatter for months after each one of these events. … The other thing is that it has a very real effect on calming people. But that doesn’t mean it’s effective in stopping these attacks, especially over time,” Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told International Business Times.
Following Snowden’s revelations, officials in Europe -- and in particular Germany, where it was revealed that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone was being tapped by the NSA -- many governments were reticent to easily share information with the U.S.
In the wake of the horrific scenes in Paris on Friday, that may change, and one international security expert believes the fight against the Islamic State offers the perfect chance for countries that may not typically cooperate to do so because everyone wants to stop its operations: “Here we have the perfect opportunity to share as much information between our intelligence agencies, including the ones that don’t normally cooperate,” Mikko Hypponen told IBT.
Failure Of Intelligence
But despite these powerful new laws, Corinne Narassiguin, a spokeswoman for France’s ruling Socialist Party, admitted “there was a failure of intelligence,” adding that not all aspects are yet operational and not all of the 2,000 new posts the French created earlier this year have been filled.
In the U.K., Prime Minister David Cameron’s government is making its second attempt to push through what opponents call the "Snooper’s Charter," which aims to undermine end-to-end encryption by forcing all telecom providers to insert a back door to let the government monitor secure communications. The company most vocally opposing this is Apple, whose iMessage service is completely encrypted, meaning not even Apple can see your communications. CEO Tim Cook has categorically stated that Apple will not compromise its system for anyone, and he says terrorists will simply find another way to communicate.
“Encryption exists, it has been invented, it is public knowledge, nothing is going to change that, and if we have uncrackable encryption -- which we do -- it can be used by good people and bad people," Hypponen told IBT. “And there is nothing you can do to limit that.”
ISIS recently switched its main messaging platform to use the encrypted service Telegram, and it was on this channel the group first took responsibility for the attack. Telegram, however, is just one of dozens, if not hundreds, of secure and private channels terrorist groups can use to communicate, with Belgium’s home affairs minister recently revealing his worry that ISIS was using messaging systems on, of all things, Sony’s PlayStation 4 to communicate.
Hiding In Plain Sight
Trying simply to ban encryption is a pointless endeavor, Hypponen argues. “The Internet features strong encryption, and we will never be able to change that,” he says, suggesting that a return to traditional, real-world intelligence gathering would be more beneficial than simply handing intelligence agencies ever greater power to collect more data on everyone.
The trouble for intelligence agencies is, terrorists are always going to be one step ahead, and in a world where we are facing a digital information tsunami, to spot the vital piece of data is getting more and more difficult.
A report by the SITE Intelligence Group last May, after the attack by ISIS follower Elton Simpson at the American Freedom Defense Initiative’s “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” in Garland, Texas, showed that he was openly discussing the attack on Twitter for anyone to see.
While it was easy to spot the tweet after the attack, doing so beforehand is difficult, even on an unencrypted and open platform like Twitter. While SITE lays some of the blame at Twitter’s door, the incident highlights the fact that simply having access to more data is not a solution to combating terrorists.
One obvious step is more cooperation on a global scale. While it is a close ally of the U.S., France is not part of the Five Eyes program which sees intelligence shared with the U.K., Canada, New Zealand and Australia. The second wave of attacks on Paris in just 10 months could see more intelligence shared among Western countries, but it remains to be seen how effective that would be. The question is whether the tracking of international terrorism can be improved.
“The answer is probably, but you have to remember that tracking involves very sensitive intelligence and analysis … and that is extremely difficult, it requires not only an exchange of data but also basic structure of how it is collected, down to keywords, because you’re dealing with different languages” Cordesman said.
Speaking at the G-20 summit in Turkey on Sunday, President Barack Obama said the U.S. would work with other countries to hunt down ISIS: “We will redouble our efforts, working with other members of the coalition, to bring about a peaceful transition in Syria and to eliminate [ISIS] as a force that can create so much pain and suffering for people in Paris,” Obama said.
Across Europe, however, it appears that after an initial push to increase the sharing of data across borders, that has now stalled and this failure to co-operate is one answer to the questions posed in the opening paragraph.
Just over a week before the terror attacks in Paris, German police stopped a car and discovered a “professionally built”’ secret compartment crammed with weaponry and munitions of the type used in Friday’s attack with Paris set as the destination on the driver’s satellite navigation. This information was never passed on to French authorities.
"I can confirm that they apprehended a man who was smuggling weapons in his personal vehicle. We are now looking into whether he is connected to the terror attacks in Paris," a representative of the German federal police told Ria Novosti, according to Sputnik News.
Sharing the information “now” is not how the system is supposed to work, and while leaders like Cameron, Obama and French President Francois Hollande speak about increasing co-operation, unless there are concrete steps taken, a repeat of the horror Paris saw on Friday cannot be ruled out.