Grim New Reality
France’s SEAL Team Six
The famed French paramilitary hostage-rescue unit took down the Charlie Hebdo killers. But there are fears it’ll be overwhelmed by a wave of new homegrown fanatics returning from jihad.
There was little doubt in the mind of French counterterrorist commanders that the final encounter with Chérif and Saïd Kouachi would end in anything but a hail of gunfire. After perpetrating the massacre at the headquarters of Charlie Hedbo and killing a wounded police officer in cold blood, the brothers embarked on a three-day game of cat-and-mouse with police, stealing cars to evade the nationwide dragnet and ultimately barricading themselves inside a printing company in an industrial park in Dammartin-en-Goële, 20 miles north of the French capital. The building was quickly surrounded by a large contingent of counterterrorist specialists from the Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale, or GIGN, France’s famed paramilitary hostage-rescue unit. An eight-hour standoff ensued. Saïd, bleeding from an exchange of gunfire with pursuing police units, and Chérif told the French media that they intended to die like martyrs. At just after 5 o’clock on the afternoon of Jan. 9, the two heavily armed brothers stormed the GIGN lines. In a furious exchange of fire, both men were killed.
Thirty miles away, in the Parisian neighborhood of Porte de Vincennes, another standoff was about to end. Earlier that day, Amedy Coulibaly had walked into the HyperCacher kosher supermarket armed with two AK-47 assault rifles and declared, “You know who I am.” Coulibaly killed four hostages early on, including one who attempted to seize his weapon, and police had little doubt of his murderous intent—he was suspected of assassinating a policewoman at close range a day earlier. The market was surrounded by the counterterrorist specialists from Recherche Assistance Intervention Dissuasion (RAID), the French National Police hostage-rescue and intervention force, and the chances for a peaceful resolution seemed bleak. Coulibaly threatened to kill his captives if French police didn’t let the Kouachi brothers go. Once the GIGN took care of business, RAID had to make its move. At 5:15 the diversionary devices detonated in blinding flashes of light and ear-splitting bursts. The entry was explosive and appeared chaotic, but it was all controlled and choreographed. In a furious exchange of automatic fire, Coulibaly was shot and killed. RAID operators flooded the store and brought all the hostages out alive.
The operations in Dammartin-en-Goële and Porte de Vincennes were decisive conclusions to a remarkable week of bloodshed. There is fear that the attacks in Paris have inaugurated a new dawn of terror for the continent—a period of incessant bloodshed and violence that promises to bring the conflicts in Syria and Iraq onto the streets of Europe.
Both the GIGN and RAID are considered among the finest counterterrorist units in the world. In December 1994, the GIGN executed an audacious rescue assault of a hijacked Air France airliner in Marseilles. After a 30-hour standoff in March 2012, RAID took out Mohamed Merah, a homegrown terrorist responsible for the killing of a French soldier and four murders at a Jewish school in Toulouse. Many of the world’s top-tier counterterrorist units are European. But there is concern that these highly skilled counterterrorist units will find themselves overwhelmed and facing new and grim tactical realities as the violence of the Arab and Muslim world reaches the old colonial capitals of Europe along with the thousands of home-grown fanatics returning home from their own stint in the jihad.
Nearly all the European counterterrorist units trace their creation to the events of September 1972, when West German police found themselves ill-equipped and ill-prepared to rescue Israeli athletes who had been seized by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympics. European governments pledged that they would never again be caught unprepared. West Germany’s Border Guards created GSG-9, the French Gendarmerie created GIGN, and Italy’s Carabinieri formed the GIS. Virtually all of these forces emanated from national police forces, though some, like Britain’s 22 Special Air Service Regiment, a famed commando force, created a specially trained hostage-rescue wing of its own. These units were all full-time squads that did nothing but train for the nightmare scenario of hostages being held by heavily armed, politically or nationalistically motivated terrorists. These units developed lightning-fast tactics to handle the explosive entry into a plane, a ship, or a train; they perfected the use of breaching tools to gain entry into the most fortified location. The counterterrorist squads changed the equation. Hostage-taking was, for a while, removed from the terrorist repertoire in Europe as units on the continent perfected hostage-rescue challenges with the same awe and surgical precision as the Israelis had achieved at Entebbe. The Dutch BBE rescued hostages held on a train in de Punt in 1977; later that year GSG-9 flew to Mogadishu to rescue the passengers on a hijacked Lufthansa aircraft. In 1981, the SAS wowed the world when its rescue of hostages held inside the Iranian Embassy in London at Princess Gate held true to form the unit’s “Who Dares Wins” motto.
The European teams had close ties to each other. Cooperation on the tactical level flourished. Small contingents of heavily armed men in vans and trucks crisscrossed the continent learning from each other, training together, and sharing tactics and techniques. Language barriers were overcome by the universal sounds of snipers at work on the range. The operators networked and shared resources and opportunities. Large-scale training exchanges soon flourished in countries like The Netherlands and Germany, where a dozen units learned to work as one. Soon these exchanges were expanded to include teams from the United States, such as the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) and units in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Australia. “We are all small units,” the commander of the Dutch BBE once explained, “but we face common threats, migrating enemies, and the need to pool our expertise.”
On the command level, the cooperation has been even more impressive. First revealed in a short European Commission press briefing, the ATLAS network is a working group consisting of 35 units from 27 European Union nations. Two non-EU units, from Norway and Switzerland, participate in ATLAS events but do not receive EU funding. One of the primary objectives of the ATLAS consortium is to increase the level of professionalism and mutual support, especially in an atmosphere of a large-scale terrorist threats, like a Mumbai event.
The multipronged 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai worried European counterterrorist unit commanders—concern underscored by recent events in Paris. Hostage-rescue operations, and missions involving heavily armed jihadis intent on killing before being killed, require massive manpower. Perimeters must be secured, support units put in place, sniper teams deployed, and breaching and entry teams positioned. The acronym SWAT might stand for Special Weapons and Tactics, but it also stands for Sit Wait and Talk. These operations can drag on for hours. The wear and tear on the men, wearing 80 pounds of gear and body armor, takes a demanding physical toll. The ballistic helmets with transparent armor visors can quickly wear down neck muscles. Add to this equation elements of climate, from bitter cold to skin-searing heat, and the men on the line need to be relieved, rehydrated, fed, and given bathroom breaks. The unit commander and his team leaders will formulate an attack plan, but the environment they live in is never cut and dried. The best plans of incredibly gifted tactical specialists are often interrupted by the terrorists’ decision to kill and be killed. Once the shooting starts, the counterterrorist specialists go in.
Resolving one terror incident requires hundreds of operators. Resolving several simultaneously, in different parts of a country, could stretch a unit’s resources dangerously thin. Secondary units and military backup will be needed. New protocols, for individual nations and for the entire EU, might have to be examined and drafted.
Some European units, it is no secret, have traveled to Israel to train with the Ya’ma’m, Israel’s national hostage-rescue and counterterrorist unit, widely considered to be the finest and most experienced in the world. The Israelis have a wealth of knowledge in the tactical termination of terror cells determined to strike inside Israel’s cities. The Ya’ma’m has unrivaled experience and unparalleled expertise in dealing decisively with suicidal terror. During the al-Aqsa intifada alone, the unit mounted hundreds of operations and raided Hamas bomb factories where explosive vests were readied for suicide bombers hours away from targeting a bus or a café in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. They have engaged fanatic terror cells and even Salafist infiltrators from Egypt in desperate firefights. Because of political sensitivities as well as operational security, many European counterterrorist units have kept word of their cooperation with Israel close to the vest. Germany’s GSG9 has been less reticent to promote these ties. In a segment broadcast on Israeli television in 2009, GSG9 and Ya’ma’m operators were seen fast-roping from Germany police helicopters commanders and conducting room-clearing training. “We are teaching them and we are training them,” said Assistant Commissioner Yoram Halevi, the Ya’ma’m commander. “We are showing them different things.”
One takeaway from the Israeli experience is to appreciate the firepower and resolve that the terrorists bring to the equation. The combination of AK-47s and the intent to die in a hail of gunfire produces a lethal cocktail. On April 3, 2004, the elite Spanish Grupo Especial de Operaciones, or GEO, unit came face-to-face with the bloody reality of suicidal Islamic terror. The storied unit, legendary in Europe for its campaign against the ETA Basque separatists and for its use of explosives in breaching fortified locations, launched a raid against the safe house used by the cell that masterminded the March 11, 2004, Madrid bombings that killed almost 200. Moments before the GEO task force was to storm the location, the four terrorists set off a suicide blast that killed them and one operator.
This latest generation of Islamic terrorists provides an even more daunting challenge to European security than the cells that emerged after the 9/11 attacks. Homegrown and fanatic, carrying EU passports and language skills that enable them to study, live, and work anywhere in the world, the fighters returning from Iraq and Syria have extensive experience in killing. They are technically proficient, savvy in social media, have the resources to travel to Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and they have the means by which to procure battlefield weapons like the antitank rocket propelled grenade in a nation like France. Tactically, Europe finds itself at a point of no return.
On the intelligence front, the spies will have to improve their level of play. They will have to beef up surveillance of known—and even suspected—homegrown radicals intent on launching attacks in Europe, and they will have to cooperate more closely with agencies and governments that have their tentacles inside the networks moving in and out of Syria and the Arabian Peninsula. Tradecraft will have to rely on technical capabilities and boots on the ground infiltrating networks and disrupting them. The methods and means required to get the job done might make many on the continent shudder. Police services will have to realign their focus to a new tactical threat and coordinate this reality with their day-to-day patrol tasks. The counterterrorist units will have to expand their scope and resources so that the men who charge courageously into a hail of bullets while the world watches will have the wherewithal to provide decisive solutions to multiple and simultaneous potentially catastrophic events.
But just how Europe fares in this conflict will be dictated by the political resolve of its leaders. The attacks in Paris have been labeled a watershed moment for the continent. But the 3/11 bombings in Madrid and the 7/7 bombings in London were watershed events. A school under siege in Beslan or a commuter bus ripped apart by a suicide bomber in Israel is supposed to be a watershed moment. The Munich Olympic massacre was supposed to be Europe’s point of no return in the war on terror, though weeks after the Israeli athletes were killed, the West German government insidiously exchanged the surviving Black September terrorists for a free pass from further Palestinian attacks on German soil. There can be no negotiations this time around, no back-door deals of appeasement.
On Saturday, January 10, a day before millions marched in Paris, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared that France was at war with radical Islam. But declaring a war will be much easier said than fighting one.