How should radical Salafist terrorism be countered? Does European integration need to extend to the intelligence field? Is ideology at the root of terrorism? In an eye-opening interview with the LSE’s Paul Dupuis, Pierre Martinet draws upon his experiences as a French soldier and intelligence officer to explore these important questions and many more.
Could you first tell us a little bit about yourself?
My name is Pierre Martinet, I’m going to be 54 in April. I retired from the French army in 2002. It’s been 16 years. I entered the army in 1982, so I served for 20 years, mostly in the paratrooper unit and then within the Division Action (Action Division) of the French General Directorate for External Security (DGSE), which is responsible for planning and performing clandestine operations. I participated in all the kinds of operations you could imagine were at play in the 1980 and 1990s in Lebanon, Chad, New Caledonia … I joined the Action Division after two attempts. When you join, you go for a one-year training program before being integrated to “active” operations.
To what kind of operation were you assigned after your training?
After training I joined a clandestine cell which aim was to gather intelligence for action, spanning both human and material intelligence, whether for homo (homicide) or arma operations — the latter being illustrated by the infamous the “Rainbow Warrior” case. I was posted in London for a long period, working on the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), one of the two main Islamist insurgents groups that fought the Algerian government and army in the Algerian Civil War, and which conducted a series of bombings in France from 1995 to 1996.
What can you tell us about the nature of your work in London at the time?
At the time, London was one of the “nerve centres” of this Islamist group, especially around Finsbury Park and Regent’s Park. We worked on Saudis, Algerians, and Moroccans who were planning on conducting attacks on French soil during the 1998 World Cup. Our goal was surveillance, but also to gather information on these individuals in anticipation of potential actions of the service against these individuals. This investigation led me to London, Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden and Hungary. What is worth noting is that Islamist organizations were already spreading in all these countries at the time, but it was nothing compared to what is happening today. Salafism, the ideology that is, according to me, the root cause of Islamist terrorism, in now extremely prevalent in the United Kingdom.
You were thus involved in counter-terrorist operations 20 years ago. What do you think about the latest French report on countering and preventing radicalization?
I believe that this report, which contains 60 measures, is empty. The main reason for that is that it does not address the real cause of Islamist terrorism: the Salafi ideology. European countries, in more general terms, are reluctant to tackle the real enemy, which is the ideology. The Muslim Brotherhood, with adherents estimated to between 2 and 2.5 millions is, as of today, mainstream in many Western countries. This organization has, since 1928, been propagating, in legal and often democratic ways, a vision of religion that is incompatible with Western democratic societies. Their goal is to lend cachet to a specific vision of Sunni Islam which is profoundly anti-Western. Let’s not forget that this organization has been considered a terrorist group by the Egyptian government since 2013. To that of course, we should add the fact that some people in Saudi Arabia have consistently been spending impressive amounts of money to spread Wahhabism in Europe and elsewhere.
Were you already able to observe these phenomenon, and the role of Saudi Arabia in the 1990s?
Of course. But as I said above, it was certainly not to the same extent.
Security forces have become a common sight in the French capital (Christophe Petit/Shutterstock, Tesson, EPA, REX)
In what way the Muslim Brotherhood is a threat? You said yourself that their main characteristic is to use legal methods and get involved in democratic politics.
The main issue is its anti-Western component. It is, on that aspect, very interesting to read the early writings of Sayyid Qutb, who was the leading member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and 1960s. The criticism of Western civilization has been constant in his work, which still provides an ideological base for the movement. How do we reconcile the individual and religious freedom of the citizens buying this ideology, and the threat that such a narrative can pose, when it leads to violence? This is a critical question, for me the most important question, and it has not yet been answered by governments.
Is there a role for intelligence services in countering such ideologies?
This root problem and paradox cannot be tackled by intelligence services. Our governments are the only ones able to answer such questions. The fight against dangerous ideologies can only be won through politics. I believe the role of intelligence services, in such a context, is to provide the best possible intelligence, so that leaders are well informed. In France, we estimate the number of people who practice and believe in Salafi Islam at around 20,000. But please be careful here – I am not saying that all these individuals are a threat! Among these, the vast majority will live their religion peacefully and will keep it to the individual sphere. But some might try to impose their views to others, in, potentially, a violent way. Then the question is: do we put in place surveillance teams for each one of these 20,000 individuals, something we can hardly afford and would threaten their individual freedom? Or do we make sure that the dangerous ideologies that lead to violence do not spread? I believe the second option is less costly, and much more efficient in the long term. The overwhelming majority of recent terrorist attacks in Europe were conducted by individuals who had been radicalized through violent Salafi-Jihadi views.
Going back to intelligence operations, how do you practically dismantle a terrorist group?
Intelligence includes several things. An increasing part of the intelligence we gather today comes from the digital environment of individuals (emails, social network accounts, phones, financial flows). Then there is technical intelligence, which aims to understand the physical behaviour and actions of the individual: we are going to try to watch, listen, track movement, etc. This is going to give us different patterns. The third part, or step, is what we call human intelligence. This intelligence, as opposed to the technical intelligence techniques just mentioned (signals, imagery, measurement) is gathered by means of interpersonal contact. Only the combination of these three environments will give us a full picture, because these “images” will whether contradict themselves or come together as one. Then, you are much more able to predict what an individual could do, which is what any intelligence officer eventually wants to get at. This is the method that has been favoured in France for example: watch individuals that could pose a threat to be better able to predict. But such operations are very costly. Human intelligence on its own requires 20 agents. Today, intelligence services — whether internal or external — are completely overwhelmed by the number of people that should be watched. The extent of the threat exceeds the means. The DGSE has recently been recruiting more to augment its human capacity, but not much compared to the work that should be done.
What do you mean by the extent of the threat?
Today, experts estimate that no fewer than 20 Islamist groups have the operational capability to conduct small or large-scale violent attacks, be it locally, nationally or transnationally. This is unprecedented. In that sense, the territorial or military defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria as we observe it today will not reduce the threat, which is of a large-scale and diffuse nature, something that makes it extremely difficult to annihilate. This is very difficult for an intelligence service to adapt to such groups, which are constantly moving and very determined. The operational modes have also changed recently, with an increase in small-scale, knife attacks conducted by individuals sometimes only loosely related to the general organization. These kinds of attacks are very hard to predict.
Does this illustrate a new model of warfare?
Not really, because it is in my view very similar to something we know very well: insurgency wars. There are three aspects to an insurgency: the ideological aspect, the financial aspect and the operational aspect, which is the use of guerrilla techniques. The kind of war is conducted behind enemy lines, and is characterized by the use of psychology — what we call psychological operations, or “psy ops” — to demoralize the enemy. Concerning the financial component, some great work has been done recently to understand where the money comes from, and new techniques also allow to track money much more efficiently than say, when I was in clandestine operations in the 90s.
You were yourself in involved in an operation in the United Kingdom, a French ally. How do European countries cooperate in terms of intelligence today?
It is absolutely essential to create a common European intelligence service, a European action service. It is imperative to break down the boundaries of intelligence and to sit down together, and put aside past differences and our diverse intelligence cultures. There is a real need for a European-style FBI, a European CIA, to deal with current threats. We must have a real understanding on the fundamental issues, agree on the root causes of the problem, name them, and fight together the three parts of the threat that I named above: ideology, funding, and military actions (actions of a violent nature).
Europol is setting up a Europe-wide intelligence-sharing system. Is this a first step in this direction?
It’s interesting but it’s not enough. You have to build a building in Brussels, and say: this is the headquarters of a European intelligence unit. The idea is not to share intelligence, since the idea of sharing implies that intelligence was previously collected at the national level. We must not share intelligence, we must gather intelligence together. The difference is fundamental. The fight will only be won that way, and we will get there with a clear policy. There has been a lack of clarity and a lack of coordination on how to deal with the Salafi-Jihadist threat. Only a clear common policy and strategy can make a difference.
Final question: what do retired clandestine agents do when they stop serving?
You have several possibilities when you retire from the military or intelligence services. It should be noted that it is sometimes extremely hard to change your life after several years of service. But what we observe, broadly, is that former agents go to private security, whether as chief of security for large companies, or as consultants in training, information gathering (for example economic intelligence), etc. The “intelligence sector” is, in that sense, much larger than the states’ intelligence services. Economic security, for example, is a major topic for most multinationals. In such a context, former DGSE agents can provide a unique expertise, which is often much needed. Others choose to create their own firm, as I did recently with WinCorp Security Defense. The choice I made is to bring my expertise in the field of training for governments, particularly in Africa. It is a continent that is particularly close to my heart, and where many countries require European expertise in intelligence to improve their security. Stability and security in Africa will lead to stability in Europe, so it is essential to tackle this issue. I work with the military, the police, the teams fighting cybercrime… I did this for example in Ivory Coast recently. My idea is to bring skills, and to make the services of these countries efficient and, progressively, completely autonomous. This takes time so missions can be very long, ranging from six months to two years.