Just hours before a woman blew herself up during a seven-hour standoff with police in Paris early Wednesday, officials at the country’s Muslim organizations were dealing with their new normal: answering calls from anguished or angry French Muslims targeted by cops and confined to home for the next three months.
They were among the approximately 104 people placed under house arrest after a raid conducted Sunday and Monday of more than 200 homes in northern and southern France, targeting those suspected of having ties to radical Islamists. An additional 23 people were formally arrested and take into custody.
Many didn’t know that they were among the more than 10,000 people on French intelligence’s rarely discussed high-security watch list, called la fiche S (for “Sûreté de l'Etat"), or S Files.
Most of the suspected Paris attackers—like 29-year-old Omar Ismaïl Mostefaï—were on the La Fiche S, as well as Hasna Aitboulahcen. who on Wednesday became the first female jihadi to blow herself up in Europe. Aitboulahcen was reportedly under triple surveillance by police and the judicial system, as well as French intelligence, for drug running and other crimes. But at least one attacker was not listed.
Saleh Abdeslam, 26, the target of a vast international manhunt since the attacks, was, incredibly, stopped by French police near the Belgian border hours after the Paris siege. But they let him go because his name didn’t come up on the national databases.
The Kouachi brothers, who led the attack at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January, as well as their accomplice, Amedy Coulibaly, were all on the La Fiche S. So was Yassin Salhi, the truck driver who decapitated his boss and drove his truck into a chemical plant near Lyon in June.
Most of those targeted by French police raids using La Fiche S found out by a knock on their door, the way two men of Algerian-French descent in different areas of Nice did Monday morning when police came to their homes, brandishing guns and demanding immediate information.
Their names were in the little-known dossier on at least 11,000 French citizens—only a small percentage of which are considered extremists— that has been around since 1969 but is so obscure to the populace that France’s newspapers suddenly have been running “What Are the S Files?” articles this week.
“I felt like throwing up,” Mohamed, a 31-year-old unemployed cook, told The Daily Beast about the cops who showed up at his door in the Ariane section of Nice, where he lives with his family. The police informed Mohamed (who did not want to give his last name) that he was now under house arrest. “I’ve done nothing. I don’t know why I was on that list. I hardly go to the mosque.”
Anis, 39, a Nice-area truck driver, told Europe 1 that armed police “banging on the door like madmen” scared his wife around 9 a.m. Monday when they showed up demanding to know where he was.
“My wife told them I was at work, so they called me while I was on my route and told me to report immediately to police headquarters in Nice,” Anis said. “I told them, ‘I’m a driver, I can’t stop work like this.’ They said, ‘If you don’t come in, we’re going to come find you and pick you up.’”
Mohamed and Anis could soon face a harsher predicament, since French politicians like former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who’s gunning for another shot at the Elysees Palace, and former Secretary of State Laurent Wauquiez are proposing that certain S-file names get slapped with an electronic ankle bracelet or possibly even rounded up into interment camps.
To an outside observer like Arthur Goldhammer, a specialist in France at Harvard’s Center for European Studies, the use of the S files to suddenly confine people at home for three months has what he called “fascist overtones”—especially in a country where tensions have always run high between the country’s 5 million Muslims and everyone else.
“It’s reminiscent of the Vichy regime during World War II when police collected slanderous reports, often from disgruntled neighbors, and people were rounded up and arrested as a result. These types of files can be misused, never more than at a time like this when both the police and the populace are frantic with worry and fear and don’t necessarily know the best way to handle a difficult threat.”
But to give you an idea of how bad things are in France now, even some French Muslims and sympathizers say they are understand why police are making such strict sweeps and don’t criticize it.
“The French authorities don’t have a choice,” said a shaken-sounding Hassan Farfado of the Union of the Muslim Associations of the Seine-Saint Denis on Wednesday morning after the latest bloody siege in Saint Denis.
“We are facing terrible dangers. Some of the people who have been targeted by the Fiche S may be innocent and I am against forcing innocent people to stay at home like criminals. I know people on the Fiche S who are leaders at mosques and they have no ties to extremists. But France is faced with a desperate situation right now and I understand why they have to do this.”
Jean-Yves Camus, a specialist in political extremism at Paris’s IRIS center for strategic studies, said bluntly: “We’ve been way too soft for too long.”
“The S files are totally legal and French authorities have the right to do this,” Camus said. “The people who have been placed under house arrest will either be indicted on charges after three months or else it will be shown that they are innocent. This is necessary. It’s only three months. We’re not Guantanamo.”
Tim Wallace-Murphy, an author and Muslim scholar, said that the long-term effects of rounding up suspected Islamist sympathizers in France, particularly if they’re innocent, “will create more jihadists than it will ever arrest.”
“But they’ve got to do it,” said Wallace-Murphy, an Irish national who has lived in France for decades. “The one thing the French can’t afford is to be seen as doing nothing. Unfortunately, this plays right into the hands of ISIS.”
Some French, like Rose Leroux, a former university professor who is half-Jewish, said a lot more is needed to help stop the spread of violent attacks.
“The Fiche S isn’t stopping these ultra-religious punks from getting their hands on guns, renting hideouts and using the Internet,” Leroux said. “Are they waiting for more attacks to take them seriously? We’re going to have to show them strength, the only thing they understand. These radicalized little bullies, ingrates, must have their communications cut off, their Internet privileges cut off. No cellphone, no Facebook, no Twitter, no Snapchat. Just cut them off and force them into secular re-education, Clockwork Orange style.”
The S files have been around for almost 50 years. They are a police classification first implemented shortly after the student uprisings of 1968, ostensibly to track the movements of diplomats from Eastern Bloc countries who were suspected of being spies.Today the S files list people who are a threat to national security but they include 21 categories, such as runaway teens and “les hooligans,” as well as potentially murderous radical Islamists. The Fiche S is regularly checked by police when stopping people at airports, near borders, on the roads and elsewhere.
A 2010 decree by the Sarkozy government said the Fiche S was to cover people who should be monitored by the state but who hadn’t committed a known criminal act.
“It’s very French to make security lists like that,” said John Robb, author of Brave New War, who worked in counter-terrorism with the U.S. Special Operations Command. “They did it during the Algerian war for independence. We did some of it in Vietnam. Building dossiers and building linkage. It can be effective. It allows you to connect people and then flip them. The problem is that you become dependent on the lists and they can become a crutch.”
Which is what happened when Saleh Abdeslam slipped through the fingers of French police after the attacks because his name wasn’t on the list.
Nice’s right-leaning mayor, Christian Estrosi, made his sentiments clear with a Facebook post vowing to “deprive Islamists of their rights” along with a graphic showing a suspect under house arrest.
“This is all the result of standard blood-and-guts terrorism,” Robb said.
“The terrorists want the government to do something stupid and outrageous. Whatever [the French] do is going to result in more disenfranchised Muslims in France feeling more snubbed and cut off from opportunities and more likely to radicalize.”