Paris police headquarters stabbings – the ‘insider threat’

France is the European country most threatened by jihadi radicalization.

French police headquarters in Paris  (photo credit: REUTERS)
French police headquarters in Paris
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On October 3, a police employee stabbed five colleagues at the Prefecture of Police on the Île de la Cité in central Paris, killing four police officers as well as seriously injuring a woman.
The attacker, 45-year-old Mickaël Harpon, an IT specialist who had done administrative work at the station since 2003, held top-secret security clearance that gave him access to all computers in the police directorate of intelligence, known as the DRPP.
The perpetrator converted to Islam a decade ago, stopped wearing Western clothes and stopped talking to women. Ties between Harpon and a hard-line Salafist imam were also confirmed. Colleagues had reported Harpon in 2015 for voicing support for the attack on the Charlie Hebdo journal offices, but nothing was done.
A USB flash drive found at Harpon’s office included ISIS propaganda material and details of police officers who worked with him. Officers are now investigating possible links with the June 2016 Magnanville stabbing, in which two police officers were killed at their home by Larossi Abballa, an Islamist who pledged allegiance to ISIS.
The killings have raised serious questions about how police failed to notice various signs of Harpon’s radicalization in recent years. Le Parisien daily reported that 19 Ministry of Interior employees are currently under surveillance by anti-radicalization investigators.
Indeed, this major terrorist incident raises the larger question of the insider threat in law enforcement, intelligence, military agencies and strategic infrastructure facilities (airports, petrochemical and power plants, etc.).
France is the European country most threatened by jihadi radicalization. With a Muslim population at 5,720,000, or 8.8% of the total population, almost 2,000 French citizens formed the largest jihadi contingent of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq. According to a June official report for the French National Assembly, as of May, there were 21,039 individuals registered in the Signal Processing File for the Prevention of Terrorist Radicalization (FSPRT). At the beginning of 2019, 12,809 cards were said to be “active,” that is to say, monitored by the services. Nearly 30% of those people converted to Islam.
On June 26, 2015, Yassin Salhi, a North African Muslim, drove his van into a gas factory in Saint-Quentin-Fallavier near Lyon, France. He was driving the van with his dead boss, Hervé Cornara, whom he had strangled and then decapitated just before reaching the factory. Salhi attempted to blow up the factory by ramming several gas cylinders, causing an explosion. He also tried to open canisters containing flammable chemicals before he was subdued. Salhi had made regular visits to the factory, so he was known to employees at the site.
French police opened a file on Salhi in 2006 over suspected links to a radical Salafist group, but the file was not renewed in 2008. Salhi was in regular contact with the French jihadist Sebastian Yunis, who left for Syria to join ISIS.
IN DECEMBER 2015, after attacks in Paris at Charlie Hebdo; in January 2016 at the Hypercacher kosher supermarket – and then in November, with the devastating slaughter at cafés, a concert hall, and a stadium – it appeared that the police had lost track of many suspected terrorists in France and Belgium. As a result, about 70 airport employees with access to planes on the ground had their “red badges” lifted because they fell under police suspicion.
The United States has registered several cases of insider threats to civil aviation.
On September 5, Abdul Alani was arrested in Miami and charged with trying to damage an American Airlines aircraft. In July, he used his access to the back side of the Miami International Airport terminal to drive up to a Boeing 737, open a compartment below the cockpit, and glue a piece of foam inside navigation equipment in such a way that pilots wouldn’t be able to tell how fast or high they were flying. The blockage triggered an alert when pilots powered up the plane, and they canceled the takeoff. Alani, born in Iraq and a US citizen since 1992, passed the vetting process run by the Transportation Security Administration.
In 2013, a technician with access to the tarmac at the airport in Wichita, Kansas, was arrested as he tried to plant what he thought was a bomb. He had told an FBI undercover agent that he wanted to carry out jihad for al-Qaeda.
Incidents of insiders sabotaging planes are considered extremely rare, although the FAA does not track them. In 2015, the inspector-general of the Department of Homeland Security found that the Transportation Safety Authority failed to identify 73 aviation workers with security badges who should have triggered terrorism-related red flags.
But the jihadist arena is not the only threat, as proved by radical right-wing insiders in military ranks in Europe.
IN SEPTEMBER 2018, seven men, all German nationals aged 20 to 30, were arrested in the East German city of Chemnitz on suspicion of forming a far-Right terror cell planning violent attacks on politicians and immigrants. They formed an extremist group under the name “Revolution Chemnitz.” The German press described the arrested men as planning a “far-Right revolution.” Five of them carried out a “dry run” attack on immigrants in central Chemnitz on September 14, armed with glass bottles, knuckle-dusters and electric stun guns.
In 2017, Germany’s Military Counterintelligence Service (MAD) had classified about 200 Bundeswehr (German military) soldiers as right-wing extremists since 2008, and recorded 286 new cases of right-wing extremism. But MAD president Christof Gramm told lawmakers that after the suspension of mandatory military service in 2011, the number of right-wing cases decreased significantly.
The Bundeswehr has come under increased pressure from the government to deal with members of far-Right movements, after an army lieutenant identified as Franco A. was discovered in April 2018 to be leading a double life as a Syrian refugee who was planning a terrorist attack.
In the German city of Tübingen, prosecutors launched in 2017 a probe into allegations of right-wing extremist behavior among the Special Forces Command, the country’s elite military troops. After a year of investigations, reporters of the Taz daily concluded that in many parts of Germany, but also in Switzerland and Austria, groups had been formed that tried to establish what could be seen as a state within a state. Members of these groups are policemen, soldiers, reservists, civil servants and members of intelligence services. The German news magazine Focus called it an “Underground Army.”
That groups like these grew in autumn 2015 is certainly no coincidence. It was a time when the migration policy of Germany became a central national topic, and far-Right extremists began to discuss how to fight it.
The issue of the prevention of terrorism has lately become a central task in the security policy of the European Union. Dozens of national and international projects are involved in this struggle. The law enforcement and intelligence agencies will need to invest special effort to reduce the insider threat.
The writer is senior research scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism and the Institute for Policy and Strategy at The Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya.