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Paris knife attack: France’s ‘fiche S’ terror watch list under scrutiny

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Paris knife attack: France’s ‘fiche S’ terror watch list under scrutiny

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The news that the perpetrator of Saturday’s knife attack in Paris had been flagged as a potential risk has focused attention on France’s watch list of potential suspects. What is the “fiche S” list for and why was the attack not prevented?

Police named the attacker as Khamzat Azimov, who was known to the authorities. The young Frenchman, born in Chechnya, was on a list of people categorised as “fiche S” — which stands for “sûreté” or “security”. The 21-year-old had been interviewed by police because of his links to suspected jihadists.

The French-Moroccan Radouane Lakdim, who killed four people at Trèbes, near Carcassonne in southwest France, had been on the “fiche S” list since May 2014 and had been closely followed.

But in both cases the authorities said there had not been enough evidence to suggest they were preparing a terrorist act.

20,000 individuals

Some 20,000 people are categorised as “fiche S” in France, of whom around 4,000 are considered dangerous. The list covers a wide range of individuals it is thought could pose a security risk: from those suspected of plotting terrorist acts to political protesters considered to be violent.

Others may have aroused suspicion of radicalisation because they no longer shake hands with women at work, or for assiduously watching Islamist propaganda online.

Many of those on the list have not done anything illegal. Some may be classed as “fiche S” because of their contacts: this was the case with the Paris knife attacker, Azimov, who was on the list and had been questioned because he knew people who wanted to go to Syria.

Calls for internment

On Sunday the political right in France again seized upon the issue, accusing President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist government of being too lax in the face of repeated attacks.

“What purpose can this ‘fiche S’ serve if we don’t stop these time bombs from causing damage on French soil?” asked National Front leader Marine Le Pen on Twitter.

Laurent Wauquiez, leader of the centre-right Republicans, denounced official “blindness and inaction”. He called on Macron and his government to bring in measures allowing for the possible internment of individuals considered the most dangerous.

Unconstitutional and undesirable

To counter their critics, the previous French government under President François Hollande put the question of possible internment to the test — and the country’s top court ruled it out. “On a constitutional and conventional basis, it is not possible for the law, outside any penal procedure, to authorise the retention of radicalised people in centres designed for that effect,” the Council of State ruled.

The simple fact of being on the “fiche S” list provides no grounds for arrest or deportation.

The prime minister at the time, Manuel Valls, said there was no question of creating a “French Guantanamo”.

Even if France were to change its Constitution to allow internment, human rights campaigners believe such a move would put it in conflict with the European Court of Human Rights.

Intelligence value

Supporters of the “fiche S” system highlight its value in terms of intelligence. Some argue that to place suspects in detention would be counterproductive, as this would prevent investigators from tracking terrorist networks. Far better, they argue, is to keep them at large in order to monitor their activities.

Identity checks and border controls help the movements of people on the list to be registered. However, resources and practical considerations rule out systematic surveillance.

French police argue that the system is efficient, despite the occurrence of attacks committed by “fiche S” suspects. By not arresting people as soon as they are considered suspects, the authorities are able to dismantle networks and foil terrorist plots.

According to the French Centre for the Analysis of Terrorism, 60% of those who have carried out the wave of attacks to hit the country since 2014 were not on any list.

“Zero risk does not exist and those who claim that measures pulled out of a hat would be enough to solve the problem, they’re lying,” said French government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux.