France must fight "all-out battle" against terrorism - Minister

Fight against terrorism – Speech by Mme Florence Parly, Minister for the Armed Forces, at the Ministry for the Armed Forces’ executive commitee on counter-terrorism

Orléans-Bricy, 1 February 2021

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Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you very much for being here today. We’ve just come out of the executive committee on counter-terrorism, with all those in the Armed Forces Ministry who are involved in the fight against terrorism. The Chief of Defence Staff, the Director-General for External Security and I would like to take a few moments with you to draw up an assessment of the threat and the latest developments we’ve seen, to remind you of the full range of anti-terrorist action by the Ministry that I lead to tackle this, within the broader picture of the State’s action. And finally, to recall that this battle against terrorism isn’t only France’s battle but that of Europe, its allies and its partners.

The last time we brought together the main players at the Armed Forces Ministry to supervise our ministerial policy on counter-terrorism was just over a year ago in Paris. So to begin with a few observations, what’s happened in the past year?

In Villejuif, in Conflans, in Nice, terrorism struck us again on our soil – acts which continue to draw inspiration from the deadly language and ideology of Daesh and al-Qaeda. More diffuse, less organized than those we’ve witnessed in recent years and therefore harder to detect.

Where Islamist terrorism has its roots, in the Levant and the Sahel, we’ve achieved great successes with our partners. On 3 June 2020, in Mali, French forces eliminated the man known as the emir of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Qaeda’s most important leader in the Sahel; the organization was behind the attacks in Grand-Bassam and Ouagadougou. On 10 November 2020, we killed the military leader of an al-Qaeda franchise in the Sahel. Attacking the terrorist groups’ hierarchs means weakening the whole organization and its ability to do harm.

My third observation concerns the involvement of our European partners. A year and a half ago, the Europeans fully realized the stakes involved in the expansion of terrorist groups in Africa, and the threat of seeing a support base created in the Sahel, as we saw in the Levant. As you know, there are currently still 5,100 French [troops] in the Sahel; but – and this is less well-known – there are also nearly 2,500 [other] Europeans.

At the same time, whether it be in the Levant or the Sahel, the local armed forces we train and support in combat are continuing to scale up, and I’d even say they’re doing so at a faster pace. They’ve gained a considerable wealth of experience over the past year, in direct contact with the enemy.

And as we know, that enemy is there for the long haul, because it thinks of itself in the long term. In the Levant, we’re witnessing worrying resurgences. The powerful attack that hit Baghdad a week ago is a sad sign of this. For over a year we’ve been observing a kind of metamorphosis of terrorism. Cornered, the enemy are transforming themselves, changing their methods, their modus operandi and the places where they operate: I’m talking about the terrain, but I also mean virtual battlegrounds. In the world of cyber and manipulating information, terrorist groups are going upmarket and adapting.

To face up to this, the Armed Forces Ministry has invested in the counter-terrorism field in all its dimensions, in every theatre of confrontation. The way we organize is being constantly reformed to adapt to this diffuse, agile, inventive enemy.

In recent weeks, two important events have given us cause to reflect on our goals and the resources we devote to counter-terrorism:

- the French President’s policy guidelines on adjustments to Operation Barkhane, which we’ll be discussing with our partners in N’Djamena in a few weeks’ time;

- and the change of administration in Washington, which, without reshuffling the cards, could lead to a few changes in Afghanistan, Africa and the Middle East.

So I’d now like to share with you a few possible ways forward for our counter-terrorism strategy.

In the face of a global terrorist threat, we must fight an all-out battle. The attacks on our soil that cravenly strike cartoonists, holidaymakers, priests and teachers are the consequences of a deeper evil with its roots at the heart of the deadly ideologies peddled by Daesh and al-Qaeda – two terrorist organizations that have shown what they’re capable of over the past 20 years: international attacks, in the United States, on our soil, in Europe, attacks that were thought out and prepared thousands of kilometres from our borders, [on] militarized territories where they imposed their laws and their terror.

The fall of Baghouz, the last bastion of Daesh, gave way to Jihad 3.0: network-centric, clandestine warfare, without territory, unpredictable.

That warfare has a cost. And here I want to pay tribute once again to the memory of the men and women who took their commitment to the very limit to defend our values and protect French people from this peril.

We’ve embarked on a comprehensive battle against terrorism, and the Director-General for External Security, as well as the Chief of Defence Staff, will explain this to you in detail in a few moments. It’s a battle to which we’re allocating significant resources: thanks to the military estimates bill in progress, four MRTTs, a Reaper system and three additional A400Ms will have been delivered in 2020 and 2021. This is a considerable effort that directly contributes to the fight against terrorist groups.

It’s a comprehensive fight on the physical battleground, but also in the new fields of conflict I was mentioning: cyber and the information battle.

Because combating terrorism doesn’t mean only engaging in combat at the source, detecting and thwarting attacks and creating space for political action. It also involves protecting ourselves here in France and Europe from wars of influence and disinformation towards the population, which play on perceptions through conflicts of images and the manipulation of facts and ideas, skilfully orchestrated on social media. In this framework, coordination with the Interior Ministry is essential.

Faced with these stubborn threats, the domain of counter-terrorism has become more structured in both our own country and those of our allies. Since 2019 we’ve had a national counter-terrorism doctrine.

Because the goal is, above all, to protect our compatriots, the Directorate-General for Internal Security (DGSI) has been selected to lead the fight against terrorism. For the Armed Forces Ministry, the DGSE [Directorate-General for External Security] runs the branch of counter-terrorism focused on our compatriots and our interests abroad. Under the Chief of Defence Staff’s command, supported in particular by the Military Intelligence Directorate (DRM), the armed forces conduct military counter-terrorism operations. Special Operations Command (COS) spearheads this.

Coordination and exchanges are obviously a key issue. This is one of the reasons we’ve set up a permanent headquarters and ad hoc cells in which all our services – the DGSE, DRM and DRSD [Defence Intelligence and Security Directorate] – are represented. It’s this coordination which allows us to monitor, in particular, targets moving between our territory and the various terrorist hotspots, such as the Syria-Iraq zone and Afghanistan, for example.

It’s precisely abroad that all our capabilities are mobilized in this battle: our three intelligence services first of all, but also our armed forces. This ecosystem also requires close internal coordination on theatres, within local coordination committees, but also at central level in various sharing structures. Without this high degree of integration, we would really be unable to ensure the terrorist leaders we’re tracking down in the Sahel can’t cause any further harm.

We know that this battle against terrorism can be won only if it is carried out collaboratively. We’re waging it firstly with our historical allies, the United States and the United Kingdom, in the Levant and the Sahel. Counter-terrorism will remain at the heart of the discussions we’ll be having with the new American administration.

We’re also waging this battle with local partners, because our goal isn’t to become sub-contractors of States which don’t invest in their defence. These partners are gradually becoming more powerful thanks to our efforts, particularly alongside anti-terrorist units.

Finally, we’re waging this battle with the European allies who’ve chosen to join us. The Takuba force, which recently had its baptism of fire facing the terrorist groups, is the most visible example. But our European allies are also at our side within the Barkhane force and our sub-regional system of cooperation. Beyond the Sahel, I’d to end by highlighting the determination and commitment of partners at our side whom we talk about less, such as the Jordanians and Emiratis.

Terrorism is clearly the deadliest threat facing us today: 20 successful attacks have killed 265 people and injured hundreds of others on our soil since January 2015, but also 51 of our own have died for France in Serval and Barkhane.

So the challenge for our defence is to keep up and intensify this battle against terrorism, without neglecting those already unfolding, particularly centring on proliferation crises and the return of strategic competition between powers.

Thank you; I’ll now hand over to the Director-General for External Security./.

Published on 20/09/2021

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