French soldiers on patrol in Paris in January. For France, a nation that has one of the largest numbers of citizens fighting for the Islamic State, the caseload of potential jihadists to monitor is becoming unmanageable
The first time Larossi Abballa appeared on the radar of French terrorism investigators, the only act of violence they could pin on him was killing bunnies.
He had joined a small group of men, all bent on waging jihad, on a trip to a snowy forest in northern France five years ago, when he was 19. There, they videotaped themselves slaughtering the rabbits, bought so the men could grow used to the feel of killing.
When he and seven others were later arrested, the authorities found that several of the men had saved the video of the slaughter on their cellphones, alongside footage of soldiers being beheaded, according to French court records. Mr. Abballa was eventually convicted on a terrorism charge and spent more than two years in prison.
In hindsight, it is not hard to see how that first act of brutality foreshadowed what happened last week: Armed with a knife, Mr. Abballa attacked a couple in northern France in the name of the Islamic State and left them to bleed to death.
But at the time of his arrest in 2011, investigators were not able to definitively show that he was a permanent threat to France. After his prison stint, he was placed under surveillance. Just months after the wiretaps stopped, he committed the double murder last week.
Across Europe and the United States, law enforcement officials are struggling to reckon with attackers like Mr. Abballa and Omar Mateen, whose shooting rampage this month at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., left 49 dead. They are men who clearly seemed to be building toward violent acts, and whose names had surfaced in terrorism investigations, but who avoided crossing legal lines that could tip off the authorities until it was too late.
With thousands of terrorism surveillance cases running at any given time, the European authorities say they are swamped and are in the difficult position of trying to head off attacks of which the only forewarning is often in the form of what someone thinks or what they are overheard saying.
“A man is in a shop and thinks about stealing an object,” said Georges Sauveur, a Paris lawyer who has defended several terrorism suspects, including one of the men who accompanied Mr. Abballa to the forest in 2011 to slaughter the rabbits. “What do you do? You put him in jail?”
Mr. Sauveur added, “You can’t put him in jail unless he takes the next step and attempts to steal something.”
In late 2010, France’s domestic intelligence agency began watching Mohamed Niaz Abdul Raseed, 33, who was living in the Val d’Oise region of northern France and who the agency suspected was a recruiter for Al Qaeda. The investigation revealed that he had lured seven adherents, the youngest of whom was Mr. Abballa.
Under the older man’s instruction, the young men met in a public park to do calisthenics, enrolled in a kung fu class and gathered for lessons on extremist Islam. They also took their day trip to the forest in Cormeilles-en-Parisis with the rabbits, which they had pooled their money to buy.
‘Thirsty for Blood’
By the spring of 2011, two members of the group had gone to Pakistan, where they were met by a facilitator for Al Qaeda, according to French court records obtained by The New York Times.
As the most junior member of the group, Mr. Abballa was not chosen to go, and that frustrated him. “I’m thirsty for blood, Allah is my witness,” he wrote in an email intercepted by the authorities. In another, he begged, “Please let me go, pls, pls, pls.”
He was arrested on May 14, 2011, and like the other members of the cell was convicted on a charge of belonging to a criminal or terrorist organization, carrying a maximum sentence of 10 years, said Sébastien Bono, the lawyer representing the accused leader of the group.
Considered the group’s least influential member, Mr. Abballa spent more than two years in prison and was released in 2013. He was kept under surveillance until the end of 2015.
“It’s very easy retrospectively, with hindsight, to say that law enforcement, or government, should have known about someone’s intent. But obviously there’s a big difference between motivation — someone being radicalized — and then going out and actually acting on that,” said Richard Walton, who led the counterterrorism unit for the London Metropolitan Police during the 2012 Olympics. “At any one time, in any country, there will be many hundreds, if not several thousand suspects, that fit this profile.”
Among the difficulties for the authorities in 2011 was that Mr. Abballa had aggressively denied any connection to terrorism. He told investigators he was an atheist. He denied that he had taken part in the practice-beheadings of rabbits — he was not seen on the video — even though the seven other men in the cell all said he had participated. And the members of the group contradicted one another. When pushed, one of Mr. Abballa’s accomplices explained that they had slaughtered the animals in order to have halal meat to eat during the Islamic holiday of Eid, according to a summary of their interrogation.
It took investigators time to spot the hole in that claim: The forest slaughter was in January, and the Eid al-Adha holiday had been celebrated two months before, in November.
From left, Omar Mateen, Larossi Abballa and Amedy Coulibaly, all of whom were known to the authorities before killing in the name of the Islamic State
Needles in a Haystack
While the legal systems may be different, the United States faced many of the same problems in their interactions with Mr. Mateen, who when questioned by the authorities about earlier threats of violence insisted that he had said those things because he was angry after facing discrimination.
After Mr. Mateen’s massacre, James B. Comey, the director of the F.B.I., said the file on Mr. Mateen had been one of “hundreds and hundreds of cases all across the country,” and compared the task of weeding out those who are expressing extremist ideas from those who may act on those ideas to “looking for needles in a nationwide haystack.”
For France, thought to have among the largest numbers of suspected Islamic State loyalists in Europe, the haystack is at least as big, and some say the caseload has become unmanageable.
“We are in fact drowning in intelligence,” said Alain Bauer, a professor of criminology at the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts in Paris.
He and others said there were structural problems, including the fact that France’s so-called S List, a database of people believed to have been radicalized, has over 10,000 names and is not ranked according to threat level.
Though most on the list never commit violence, others have now been responsible for gruesome headlines. Eight of the 10 men who staged the deadliest European terrorist attack in over a decade — the Paris killings on Nov. 13 — were on the S List and several had spent time behind bars, yet were able to sneak back into France and Belgium from Syria. Another suspect on the list, Amedy Coulibaly, had also been imprisoned on a terrorism conviction. Eight months after his electronic bracelet was removed by the French authorities, he killed a police officer and opened fire in a kosher supermarket in Paris in January 2015, leaving four more people dead in the Islamic State’s name.
“If you take your daily agenda, and you were to note down the birthday of every single person you know, it would be unmanageable” to try to wish them all a happy birthday, Mr. Bauer said. “You need to make a selection. We don’t know how to do that with the profiles of these people.”
Those kinds of suspects have created an awkward middle ground for the French authorities, and after a series of plots or attacks linked to the Islamic State over the past two years, there is more urgency to find new legal tools to deal with the problem.
After Mr. Abballa killed the couple in Magnanville, France, last week, a deputy in Parliament, Éric Ciotti, introduced a bill creating the status of “administrative detention” for those representing a security threat.
In effect, he was calling for rapid prioritization of the S List, and he said the bill would be aimed at immediately detaining hundreds of those deemed to pose the highest risk, placing them under house arrest or in a detention center.
He called the measure necessary because the penal code is based on proving that an individual is not just talking or thinking about committing an act of terrorism, but has taken steps toward carrying out the act.
“These people are known to us,” he said. “I want to be able to take preventive action.”
Prime Minister Manuel Valls said last week that he would consider the proposal, but that there would be “no Guantánamo” in France, the French newspaper Libération reported.
Jean-Charles Brisard, the chairman of the French Center for the Analysis of Terrorism in Paris, called the idea “absurd” and said France could not jettison civil liberties.
He added that putting everyone on the S List under surveillance was impossible, because there are more than 10,000 names and fewer than 5,000 agents. It takes 20 agents per suspect for 24-hour surveillance, he said, meaning France could perform round-the-clock surveillance of only a small fraction of those suspected of being radicalized.
“My profound conviction is that unfortunately we need to get used to living with this new threat,” Mr. Brisard said. “It’s permanent, it’s diffuse and it can erupt at any moment.”
Jihad and Vengeance
The streets in Magnanville, a community of about 5,600 people less than 40 miles from Paris, are lined with neatly trimmed hedges. It was here that Mr. Abballa waited last week for an off-duty police officer, Jean-Baptiste Salvaing, to come home. As neighbors watched in horror, Mr. Abballa stabbed Mr. Salvaing in the street and left him bleeding in the driveway, then forced his way into the house. There he stabbed to death Jessica Schneider, the officer’s longtime partner, as the couple’s 3-year-old son watched.
In the time it took the police to close in and shoot Mr. Abballa dead, he paused to upload a Facebook Live video. He had prepared a long speech, and the sound of flipping pages could be heard as he spoke.
“First of all, I pledge allegiance to Emir al-Mumineem Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” he began, referring to the leader of the Islamic State using a similar formula to the pledge uttered by Mr. Mateen, who called 911 from inside the nightclub to dedicate his violence to the terrorist group.
In a long rant captured on the video, Mr. Abballa’s thoughts returned to the frustration he felt in 2011, when he begged to be allowed to go abroad to wage jihad.
“I address this also to the French infidel authorities. This is the result of your work. You closed the door to my Hijrah,” he said, using an Arabic term for a pilgrimage that for some Islamic State devotees has come to mean traveling to Syria and Iraq to join the group. “You closed the door toward the lands of the caliphate? Well, good then, we have opened the door of jihad onto your territory.”
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