Three months before Islamist terrorists mounted a murderous attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo , Stéphane Peu, deputy mayor of the Saint-Denis neighbourhood in northern Paris, made an unsettling discovery.
The town had been planning to compensate a Saudi-funded charity for expropriating its property as part of an urban redevelopment scheme. Then the finance ministry called to inform him that the foundation’s assets had been frozen because of suspected links to al-Qaeda.
That Mr Peu’s local administration had been kept in the dark was not entirely a surprise. But he was puzzled to discover that the intelligence officers in charge of the Saint-Denis district had no clue about the case either.
“The foundation was on a UN list of al-Qaeda affiliates but it had never been investigated nor monitored,” Mr Peu says. “I thought it showed a lack of co-ordination.”
Like a growing number of intelligence experts, Mr Peu now questions the impact of a high-profile overhaul of France’s counter-terrorist services under former president Nicolas Sarkozy, the first such restructuring since the second world war.
The reform was designed to deepen co-operation among intelligence units. Instead, it prompted France to thin down a network of field officers built up over half a century — a network that critics say is now badly needed to contain the threat of homegrown jihadism.
“Before the reform, about 20 officers were based in Saint-Denis,” Mr Peu says. “They knew everybody. Now there are none. No one is strolling on the streets, checking in on mosques or talking to business owners or concierges.”
The 2008 reform has become a focus of scrutiny amid a wider debate on the failings of the security services following the bloody attack on Charlie Hebdo a year ago and the November assault on Paris in which 130 people were killed. On Thursday, the country was rattled anew as police shot dead a man wielding a butcher’s knife and wearing a fake suicide vest who attacked them.
The reform sought to streamline intelligence services by merging the counter-espionage and domestic surveillance units.
“We realised then that the old system was truly running out of steam,” says Bernard Squarcini, a longtime intelligence officer appointed by Mr Sarkozy to head the newly merged intelligence unit in 2008. “Given that the threat was both coming from the inside and the outside, we absolutely needed to join forces.”
Mr Squarcini, who stepped down in 2012, argues that the core missions of the domestic intelligence services were becoming obsolete. “They used to monitor trade unions, far-left revolutionary groups during the cold war, as well as political opposition,” he says.
But critics say the reform placed too much emphasis on high-tech tracking of “strong signals” from the top echelons of terrorist groups at the expense of “weak signals” from operatives and sympathisers on the ground. In an effort to save money, it also slashed headcount.
If anything, last year’s attacks have further challenged the focus of a security service built to combat top-down terrorist organisations: the assaults were perpetrated by low-level, French-born delinquents.
“The reform was suited for the cold war,” says Eric Dénécé, head of the French centre for intelligence research, a think-tank. By contrast, he argues, spotting signs of radicalisation among the sort of people who carried out last year’s attacks involves monitoring “sensitive suburbs, immigrant communities, petty crimes, violent gangs, mosques and non-profit organisations”. A spokesperson for Mr Sarkozy, now the leader of the opposition Republican party, was not available for comment.
The government has already moved to reverse some elements of the reform, promising to increase the services’ workforce — although analysts note it may be years before new hires are fully operational.
Meanwhile, after a year of terror, political discourse also appears to be shifting towards a less centralised approach. Alain Juppé, the former centre-right prime minister who will compete against Mr Sarkozy in party primaries this year, has said he will “restore fully the place of the territorial intelligence services”, arguing that field intelligence has been weakened by successive reforms.
Mr Squarcini disagrees. The problem is not a failure to capture weak signals, he says, but making sense of so many of them.
More than 10,000 people in France have been flagged as radicalised and potentially posing a threat to national security. They included most of the French-born Islamist terrorists who participated in the latest attacks.
“We get a lot of tips. The issue is more how to analyse them,” Mr Squarcini says. “We need psychologists, academics, experts in religions, good analysts to be able to spot the moment when one of them becomes dangerous.”
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