France's response to last Friday's bloody attacks on Paris is showing results.
In a raid of an apartment just north of the city on Wednesday, France's anti-terror police "neutralized" an ISIS cell that was preparing to attack the La Defense district, the country's version of Wall Street, Paris prosecutor Francois Molins told the media. Molins said Thursday that the raid led to the death of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the man suspected of planning Friday's attacks, in which 129 people were killed.
Also killed were Abaaoud's cousin, who blew herself up with a belt bomb during the raid, and seven suspects were arrested. Since the simultaneous assaults on a Paris athletic stadium, concert hall, and several bars and restaurants by eight gunmen, France's government has gone on the offensive. Police have launched more than 400 raids throughout France in the past three days, the government said in a statement. They arrested or detained 60 people, and seized 75 weapons, including a rocket launcher. Nearly 120 people were placed under house arrest. On Wednesday, police in Paris' historic Montmartre district sealed off several streets near the Guy Moquet metro stop while they searched a car. An officer at the scene told The Verge the automobile was suspected of being connected to Friday's attacks.
In a strategy seemingly ripped out of the post-9/11 US playbook, François Hollande, France's president, has moved to limit some civil liberties and to provide more firepower for police around the country. On Thursday, France's lower house of parliament voted to extend the state of emergency up to three months, which gives the government new powers to place people under house arrest and limit the ability of people to protest. The lower house also voted to give the president the power to block websites and social media. The upper house is expected to vote on Friday.
Hollande also wants the ability to strip the citizenship of French-born terrorists, as well as simplify the process of deporting suspected terrorists. France's president said he plans to help police throughout France get access to more weapons, and he also plans to boost border security by hiring 5,000 additional officers specially trained to fight terrorism.
Security at the top tourist attractions, such as the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur, which was already high, now have a much larger presence of police or soldiers, conspicuous in their camouflage uniforms and berets. Cops armed with machine guns are now more prominent on the city's subway platforms. Visitors will find the city's charm and spirit intact, but for the foreseeable future, tourists are sure to be confronted by reminders that France is at war.
One precaution that US visitors won't find, at least immediately, is the bag checks on the subway. Since 9/11, it isn't unusual for New Yorkers to see police at a subway entrance searching bags. This appears to be something the French are preparing to address. This week, Segolene Royal, France's ecology minister, said she wanted authorities to investigate how X-ray machines can be installed at the country's railway stations.
Historically, trains are a favorite terrorist target. ISIS, the terrorist organization which claimed responsibility for Friday's attacks, launched a failed assault on a high-speed train bound for Paris last August. The man planned to shoot up the train but was subdued by three Americans. And the worst attack before the Paris assault was the 2004 bombings of commuter trains in Madrid, which killed 191 people.
Some in France are asking why the government didn't take similar security precautions earlier, maybe after the murders last January of a policeman and 11 employees of French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, or after the failed August train attack. The government did receive increased powers to monitor phone and email communications, and while some are pushing for greater surveillance powers, news came yesterday that the raid on St. Denis began with the discovery of unencrypted messages found on a phone near the Bataclan concert hall. Officials also said initially that Abaaoud planned the attack from Syria, a blow to the credibility of France's intelligence operations.
No doubt the question about why France didn't move earlier to dismantle jihadist networks will continue to be asked. In the meantime, France must continue to learn from mistakes. One area that French police appear to need more mastery of is breaking down doors. In the St. Denis raid, police initially failed to blow open the metal front door of the suspects' hideout, giving them time to arm themselves and open fire. Five policemen suffered non-life threatening injuries in the operation. A police dog named Diesel was killed.
Later, police also struggled to get past the wooden door of a nearby 19th century church they wished to search. I watched as they spent about 20 minutes pounding and prying with a sledgehammer and crowbar. Some onlookers in St. Denis, an area with a large immigrant population, made it clear they're not fans of the police. A few hurled snide remarks about their inability to get past the door.
France's president moved to limit some civil liberties and to provide more firepower for police
Perhaps the two most important moves made by France to protect itself is an attempt to rally allies in the fight against ISIS abroad. Hollande is expected to meet next week with US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Not only did the French military bomb Raqqa, the city that ISIS calls its capital, but the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle on Tuesday left the port of Toulon and is headed for the eastern Mediterranean.
The carrier will be accompanied by the British warship, HMS Defender. The Defender's involvement sends a clear message that in its war against ISIS, France is not alone.