Overview: France remained a key partner of the United States in the global fight against terrorism, and their bilateral CT cooperation is strong. France is a longstanding and important member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, and provides financial support to GCERF. France is also a founding member of the Christchurch Call to Action to Eliminate Terrorist and Violent Extremist Content Online. The country continued to conduct CT operations in Iraq, Libya, Mali, Syria, and the Sahel region.
The terrorist threat in France remained high, with President Macron raising the national alert system to the highest level in late October, following brutal terrorist attacks. Security services remained concerned with lone-actor attacks, carried out by individuals already in France, inspired by or affiliated with ISIS. The government introduced a bill to counter “Islamist separatism” to enhance its ability to tackle manifestations of this movement, including in community associations, schools, religious organizations, and cyber space.
French law enforcement and intelligence agencies thwarted at least eight attacks in 2020 and arrested at least 16 individuals, including 8 linked to what France considers far-right violent extremism and 7 linked to far-left violent extremist groups.
2020 Terrorist Incidents: At least eight suspected terrorist attacks took place in 2020, with limited casualties. Below are the details on the five most prominent attacks.
- On April 4 a Sudanese male asylee carried out a knife attack in Romans-sur-Isère killing two persons and injuring five others. The assailant was unknown to security services and had no known ties to any terrorist organization.
- On April 27 a French man who pledged allegiance to ISIS intentionally rammed his car into two police officials, gravely injuring both, near Paris.
- On September 25 a Pakistani refugee carried out a knife attack outside the former headquarters of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, injuring two persons, over Charlie Hebdo’s reprinting cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.
- On October 16 an 18-year-old Chechen refugee beheaded a schoolteacher in a Parisian suburb for showing cartoons of the prophet Muhammad during class. The terrorist reportedly learned about the teacher in a social media post.
- On October 29 a 21-year-old Tunisian migrant carried out a knife attack at a church in Nice, brutally killing three people, one of whom was decapitated.
Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security: On June 19 the Constitutional Council ruled that the law against “concealing justification for terrorism” (downloading and possessing files that approve of terrorism) was unconstitutional.
In October, France raised the national attack alert system to the highest level, following the attack at a church in Nice and the beheading of a schoolteacher. On December 9 the government unveiled its “Anti-Separatism” bill, renaming it “Upholding Republican Values” to address the concern that “radical Islamists” were creating parallel societies that break away from French society and indoctrinate members with ideas contrary to the values of the French republic.
President Macron increased domestic CT patrols under the Ministry of Defense’s Operation Sentinel from 3,000 to 7,000 troops nationwide. France maintained extraordinary border controls, in place since the 2015 attacks, with its Schengen neighbors.
In December, France proposed new measures to “radically overhaul” the Schengen border security measures in light of terrorist attacks in France and Austria.
On December 14 Parliament extended the controversial 2017 law on internal security and counterterrorism (SILT) until 2021. SILT codifies certain measures of the 2015-17 State of Emergency, including search and seizures, restricting and monitoring movements of certain individuals, and closing religious sites suspected of promoting “radical Islam.”
France maintained its policy against the repatriation of adult FTFs, but government sources confirmed France repatriated 11 children on a case-by-case basis in 2020, for a total of 28 since 2019. In accordance with the 2014 French-Turkish agreement known as the Cazeneuve Protocol, Turkey deports in coordination with French authorities all suspected French FTFs and their children to France. As of July, Turkey had deported an estimated 281 French FTFs and their children under this agreement. For all adult FTFs, French authorities arrest and place them in pretrial detention upon their landing in Paris. For minors, the government arranges their rehabilitation and reintegration, including medical and psychological care and placing them in appropriate homes, including foster care, that are specially trained to care for them. Returning children older than 13 may face charges, depending on their known or suspected activities in the Iraq-Syria region.
According to French government sources, France thwarted at least eight attacks in 2020, including attacks linked to both far-right and far-left violent extremism. On May 26, security services arrested a white supremacist suspected of planning an attack against the Jewish community in the central city of Limoges. On December 8, intelligence security services disbanded a small far-left group suspected of planning an attack targeting law enforcement, placing seven of its members under investigation for terrorism.
On December 4, Norway extradited to France Walid Abdulrahman Abou Zayed, a suspected shooter in the 1982 anti-Semitic terrorist attack in Paris, which killed six persons, including two U.S. citizens.
On December 17 the Special Criminal Court sentenced Moroccan national Ayoub al-Khazzani to life in prison for the 2015 Thalys train attack, in which U.S. citizens helped stop the attacker.
High-profile terrorist cases in the judicial system included the following:
- On July 3 the Special Criminal Court sentenced Tyler Vilus to 30 years of prison for overseeing the executions of detainees in Syria between 2013 and 2015 while he served as a senior ISIS leader. He is the first French national to be tried in France for crimes committed in Syria.
- On October 14 the Special Criminal Court sentenced Algerian national Farid Ikken to 28 years in prison for attempted terrorist murder when he attacked and injured one police officer with a hammer outside the Notre-Dame Cathedral in 2017. Ikken had pledged allegiance to ISIS.
- On December 16 the Special Criminal Court convicted all 14 defendants for providing support to the three deceased terrorists responsible for the 2015 attacks against satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, police officers, and a kosher supermarket that killed 17 people. The accomplices, including three tried in absentia, were given sentences ranging from four years to life in prison.
Countering the Financing of Terrorism: France is a member of FATF. Its FIU, the Intelligence Processing and Action Against Illicit Financial Networks Unit (or Tracfin), is a member of the Egmont Group. France is also a member of the Defeat-ISIS CIFG.
In February, France adopted the EU’s anti-money laundering and terrorist financing law, which aims to harmonize due diligence measures regarding high-risk third countries or in cases of remote business relationship. On December 9, France adopted a measure where all virtual asset service providers must check their customers’ identities, verify “beneficiary owners,” prohibit anonymous crypto accounts, and cooperate with intelligence and asset freezing services.
France continued to investigate and prosecute financing of terrorism cases in 2020. On September 29, French authorities carried out a raid against a terrorist financial network suspected of transferring “hundreds of millions of euros” using cryptocurrencies to suspected terrorists affiliated with ISIS and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham in Syria, resulting in 29 arrests.
Countering Violent Extremism: The government presented a draft bill on December 9 “to uphold republican values” and counter Islamist separatism. Within four years, the government will end foreign government funding of imams from Algeria, Morocco, and Turkey and to serve as religious leaders in France. The government banned at least three organizations and closed one mosque for suspected ties to violent Islamist movements in 2020. On December 3 the government announced it would inspect 76 mosques suspected of Islamist separatism.
To counter “cyber Islamism,” the government announced October 23 the creation of a countermessaging unit. In response to a surge of online content promoting or justifying terrorism, the government will strengthen the Ministry of Interior’s online platform (PHAROS) for the public to report suspicious or illegal online content. Bordeaux, Montreuil, Paris, and Sarcelles are members of the Strong Cities Network.
International and Regional Cooperation: France is a founding member of the GCTF and plays a key role on the UN Security Council ISIL (for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and al-Qaeda Sanctions Committee. The French government undertook joint CT operations with several EU partners and played an active role in CT capacity building in other countries, particularly in West Africa’s Sahel region with the creation of the Coalition for the Sahel in January and the launch of Task Force Takuba in July.