Paris attacks: Did intelligence fail in France?

There are many examples of security breakdowns prior to the carnage in Paris on Nov. 13, and much has been made of them. But there are a number of others that have received less public attention.

'If we have 130 people dying in Paris on a Friday in a terrorist attack, it is because the system didn't work'

Paris attacks: Did intelligence fail in France?

7 years ago
Duration 20:13
The Paris attacks shook the world and raised many questions we are still struggling to answer. The CBC's Terence McKenna takes a fresh look at exactly what happened.

This is part one of a two-part series on the Paris attacks. Part two will air Tuesday on The National.

Following a series of deadly attacks in Paris on Nov. 13, Claude Moniquet, a former French intelligence official, summed up the performance of the security services this way: "Very clearly, if we have 130 people dying in Paris on a Friday in a terrorist attack, it is because the system didn't work." 

There are many examples of security breakdowns prior to the carnage, and much has been made of them. But there are a number of others that have received less public attention. 

One involved police reaction around the Bataclan concert hall.

Three men, armed with AK-47 assault rifles and explosive vests, attacked the Bataclan, where more than 1,000 people had gathered to see the American band Eagles of Death Metal. At the end of the night, 89 had been killed and more than 100 wounded. 

The attack began around 9.40 p.m., but it wasn't until about 12.20 a.m., almost three hours later, that heavily armed French SWAT units stormed the concert hall.

A victim's body lies covered, close to the Bataclan concert hall, early on Nov. 14, 2015 in Paris. Three gunmen stormed the venue wearing explosive vests, eventually leaving 89 people dead and more than 100 injured. (Thierry Chesnot/Getty)

A Bataclan security guard who tried to help people escape said he was hoping for police help much earlier. "They all arrived too late," said Jean-Pierre Betelli.

"Let's just say it was already late for us, because the people who were calling them were in the process of dying," he said. "They [the police] didn't move from their [street] corner to help. They didn't move."

The police were also reticent about helping the wounded outside. 

"I heard a woman who was lying there and who was asking for help," said Patrick Zachmann, a freelance photographer who happened to be outside the Bataclan during the attack. "So I told the police there is a wounded woman who is asking for help. And they said, 'we know, we know, but we cannot do anything right now for her.'"

The police had also cordoned off much of the neighbourhood, making it difficult to get help to those who had been hiding in nearby apartments.

Daniel Psenny is a Le Monde journalist whose apartment window faces the Bataclan on a side street. He filmed the famous video of people running out during the shooting, and ended up being shot himself. He and another wounded man hid in his apartment, where he continued to bleed for hours. But police wouldn't let anyone help them. 

(Warning: Graphic content) Paris attack captured on cellphone

7 years ago
Duration 2:46
Le Monde journalist Daniel Psenny films people fleeing from emergency exit and climbing out of windows at Bataclan theatre

"It was very scary. If it took too long, we wouldn't make it," Psenny said. "I mean, it's almost absurd — here you have all the police, all the help, all the ambulances, all the firemen. But no one could come to get us, so we waited for three hours to be liberated."

Another big question about police performance has to do with Salah Abdeslam, the Belgian-born logistical leader of the entire operation, which involved three teams of jihadists. One of Abdeslam's logistical tasks for the operation was to rent cars, and he used his real name. One car used in the attacks, a black Volkswagen Polo, was parked illegally in front of the Bataclan. Police knew it was the attackers' car, and it was towed away soon after the final assault. 

Abdeslam, meanwhile, had called some friends in Brussels after the attacks, and they drove to Paris to pick him up and take him back to Belgium. During the trip, their car was stopped three different times along the highway. The French police checked his documents, but they seemed to have nothing on Abdeslam and let him go each time.

The French police had many hours to make the connection between the rented car as Abdeslam was last detained along the highway around 9 a.m. the day after the attacks. Somehow they failed, and Abdeslam is now one of the most-wanted men in the world. 

A French policeman assists a blood-covered victim near the Bataclan concert hall following the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris. (Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)

Police services around the world also knew the names of most of the attackers long before Nov. 13, they were aware that a major attack had been planned for Paris, and they even had intelligence that a concert hall would be a target. 

And yet they failed to stop it. 

But as Moniquet puts it, the West is in a new place now, simply overwhelmed by the numbers of active and potential ISIS terrorists.

"Society must understand that it's extremely difficult to do the job at the moment, because for two decades, intelligence and police services used to deal with a few dozen, maybe a few hundred people on the whole European continent," he said. "Maybe 500 were sympathizers of al-Qaeda 10 years ago. Today we have approximately 10,000 sympathizers of the Islamic State, which makes it mission impossible."

CBC's The National visited Paris to investigate questions raised about the official handling of the attacks. Watch The National's in-depth look at who the Paris attackers were and how they managed to do what they did.