Terror in Europe

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Sebastian Rotella

Sebastian Rotella &
Dan Edge &
Ricardo Pollack

Ricardo Pollack

ALAIN GRIGNARD, Sr. Counterterror Officer, Belgian Police:  [through interpreter]  For many years, terrorism was something hypothetical, something that happened elsewhere.  But at a certain point, you have to open your eyes.  How did we not see this coming?

NARRATOR:  In early 2015, Belgian police, with the help of U.S. and French intelligence, were preparing to launch a raid on a terrorist cell thought to be on the verge of an attack.  The suspects were hiding out in the town of Verviers.

ALAIN GRIGNARD:  [through interpreter]  They were clearly in contact with people who could have turned them in, but nobody did.  These people were extremely careful.  They never left the apartment.  We knew we would face determined men.  They had weapons.  They had explosives.

NARRATOR:  When Belgian commandos stormed the hideout, they came under heavy fire.  They shot two men dead and wounded another.  Investigators found explosives, fake IDs and police uniforms.

ALAIN GRIGNARD:  [through interpreter]  We discovered they had connections to Syria, to ISIS.  We quickly realized this was the start of a campaign across Europe.  We thought this could be the beginning of a new era.  Unfortunately, we were right.

NARRATOR:  Since January 2015, an unprecedented wave of terror Attacks has overwhelmed Europe’s defenses.  That month, attacks against Charlie Hebdo magazine and a Jewish supermarket in Paris left 17 people dead.  On November 13th in Paris, ISIS attacked multiple targets, killing 130 people.  Four months later, suicide bombings killed 32 in Brussels.

ProPublica reporter Sebastian Rotella has been covering terrorism for two decades.  Years before the attacks, he was already reporting on some of the jihadists who would go on to strike Europe and the counterterror officials trying to stop them.

In this film, he sits down with the men and women on the inside of the fight against al Qaeda and ISIS.  They revealed the missteps and systemic breakdowns that allowed known terrorists to hit the heart of Europe, how the problems persist today and the unprecedented threat the continent faces.

LOUIS CAPRIOLI, LOUIS CAPRIOLI, Counterterror Chief, French Domestic Intel., 1998-:  [through interpreter]  It’s a disaster.  Why were they not monitored and stopped?  These people were timebombs.

MATT OLSEN, Dir., Natl. Counterterrorism Ctr., 2011-14:  These individuals were on the radar.  They had traveled to Syria.  They were known to law enforcement and intelligence Officials. 

ERIC VAN DER SYPT, Counterterror Prosecutor, Belgium:  No system is perfect.  We live in a free world.  How much of your freedom do you want to sacrifice for your security?

JEAN-LOUIS BRUGUIERE, Fmr. French Counterterror Magistrate:  [through interpreter]  The 13th November attacks should never have happened.  The Brussels attacks should never have happened.  The system has completely failed.

NARRATOR:  In 2003, French intelligence began monitoring a group of Islamic radicals who lived near the Buttes Chaumont Park in northeast Paris.  They were young, untrained and inexperienced.  But one member of this gang would ultimately carry out the Charlie Hebdo attacks 12 years later.

Cherif Kouachi was a petty criminal and aspiring rapper.  The son of Algerian immigrants, he’d grown up in an orphanage after his parents died.  When he was 21, Kouachi was radicalized by the U.S. invasion of Iraq and joined the extremists of the Buttes Chaumont gang.  They were plotting to go to Iraq and kill Americans.

LOUIS CAPRIOLI:  [through interpreter]  It was a small group of people, young men, not particularly religious, most of them criminals, drug dealers, robbers.  They were seduced by talk of supporting the Muslim community.

NARRATOR:  Louis Caprioli was then the counterterror chief of French domestic intelligence.  Rotella first met him while reporting on the Buttes Chaumont gang.

LOUIS CAPRIOLI:  [through interpreter]  French domestic intelligence and the police were watching that group.  In January 2005, the authorities began to dismantle the network.  Cherif Kouachi was arrested as he was about to board a plane to go to Iraq and fight.

NARRATION :*  Kouachi was sent to Fleury Merogis prison to await trial.  While he was locked up, his extremist connections only deepened.  The prison was a hotbed of jihadism dominated by al Qaeda veterans.  Kouachi became friends with another radicalized criminal who would ultimately join him in his terrorist project, Amedy Coulibaly.

MARC TRÉVIDIC, Chief Anti-Terror Magistrate, France, 2007-15:  [through interpreter]  They could communicate with each other.  It was totally porous.  It was disturbingly easy to form connections.  So they expanded their network and became worse than when they arrived in prison.

NARRATOR:  Marc Trévidic was a top counterterror prosecutor and judge who investigated Kouachi’s network.  He says the French judicial system was not set up to deal with the long-term threat they posed.

MARC TRÉVIDIC:  [through interpreter]  That was our tragedy, in a way.  We thought that if there are no attacks on French soil, then the anti-terrorist system is working correctly, therefore everything is fine.

In fact, nothing was fine.  These may have been terrorists linked to al Qaeda, but they were seen as people who were leaving the country to fight.  So they weren’t seen as a direct threat against us.

NARRATOR:  As the gang had not carried out an actual attack, French law dictated that they be tried in a low-level court alongside robbers and drug dealers, where the maximum sentence was only 10 years.

In 2008, Kouachi was convicted of recruiting fighters to go to Iraq and attempting to join al Qaeda.  His sentence was three years, with 18 months suspended.

MATT OLSEN, Dir., Natl. Counterterrorism Ctr., 2011-14:  The contrast between the way European nations deal with terrorism from a criminal perspective and the United States is quite stark.

NARRATOR:  Matt Olsen led the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center between 2011 and 2014.  Before that, he was a prosecutor and the NSA’s chief lawyer.

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA, ProPublica:  What would the sentence be for somebody like that be in the U.S.?

MATT OLSEN:  Hypothetically, someone like Kouachi with that charge would be looking at far in excess of 15 years, the conspiracy to provide support to a terrorism group.  And the important thing there is that 15 years for somebody who’s in their mid-20s or their 30s, you know, that brings them into their 40s or mid-40s.  And the hope is that by the time they’re released, they’re not interested or too old to really be involved.

NARRATOR:  Kouachi wasn’t alone.  Amedy Coulibaly served only three years for his involvement in a plot to help a convicted terrorist escape from prison.  No one else in the Buttes Chaumont crew served more than seven years, even dangerous fighters who saw combat in Iraq.  Today, several are active terrorists.

LOUIS CAPRIOLI:  [through interpreter]  The judges did not realize that these people were timebombs.  They didn’t rightly assess their truly dangerous nature.  Consequently, they were given light sentences, perhaps to try to reintegrate them into society.

MARC TRÉVIDIC, Chief Anti-Terror Magistrate, France, 2007-15:  [through interpreter]  We were mistaken in our assessment of quite a lot of people who we thought were less dangerous than they actually were.  From the moment they stepped out of prison, they left with an even greater hatred towards France than before.  We only increased their wish for revenge and their determination to hurt us.

CHERIF KOUACHI:  [subtitles]  This is just a trumped-up case.  We’re kids from the projects.  We get riled up, we talk, but that’s it.

NARRATOR:  Having already spent 20 months in prison awaiting his trial, Kouachi left court a free man.  By this time, Louis Caprioli had retired.

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA:  For a police officer like you, who’s worked to put these people in jail, how does that make you feel?

LOUIS CAPRIOLI:  [through interpreter]  It is a feeling of failure, a feeling of failure as we are perfectly aware that these people have not been removed from the action and that they will come back even more dangerous.

NARRATOR:  In the years following his release, Kouachi was investigated again for suspected terrorist activity, but never convicted.  In 2011, he took advantage of a fatal flaw in Europe’s counterterror defenses, weak border control.  Concealing his identity by using his brother’s passport, he left France and traveled to Yemen to join al Qaeda.

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA:  Here you have a convicted terrorist who’s able to leave the country, go to a dangerous part of the world, a terrorist haven, without being detected.  How’s that possible?

MATT OLSEN:  Well, absolutely.  So somebody should not be able to cross international borders who’s been convicted of a terrorism offense and who’s seeking to travel to a place like Yemen.  In the United States, after 9/11, we established a single watch list for known or suspected terrorists, the no-fly list.

In Europe, there’s not one single watch list for Europe.  They have not developed a way to effectively stop somebody traveling, even though in this case, the individual was convicted of terrorist offenses.

NARRATOR:  For more than a decade, counterterror chiefs have proposed laws to improve border defenses, such as giving European security forces systematic access to data that airlines collect about all passengers on the continent.  U.S. border guards have used this tool, known as Passenger Name Record, or PNR, for 15 years.

But European politicians, concerned about privacy and data protection, repeatedly rejected PNR legislation.

PARLIAMENTARIAN:  Read my lips, data protection directive!

ROB WAINWRIGHT, Director, Europol:  We have, you know, maybe a different privacy mindset in certain countries in Europe compared to the U.S.  It depends on the different cultural, historical, political backgrounds of each country, and they are different.

NARRATOR:  Rob Wainwright is the director of Europol, the agency tasked with coordinating law enforcement across the 28 countries of the European Union.

ROB WAINWRIGHT:  The privacy-security tradeoff still goes back, I think, to the legacy from the Second World War, where, you know, German and Austrian citizens are concerned about never again shall we arrive at a position where the State can have so much authority that they can collect unlimited amounts of personal data about their citizens, and for good reason, actually.

NARRATOR:  But counterterror chiefs say despite the concerns, PNR would help them intercept suspected terrorists.

LOUIS CAPRIOLI:  [through interpreter]  European legislators have rejected Passenger Name Record.  Why?  Because they see it as a violation of liberties.  That is a mistake.  It is a flaw of our monitoring system, the way people can circulate in and out of Europe.

NARRATOR:  In Yemen, Cherif Kouachi met up with an old friend from the Buttes Chaumont gang.  Peter Cherif had himself absconded from France while on trial for terrorism charges and was now a fighter for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which was being monitored intensively by the U.S.

MATT OLSEN:  The meeting that occurs in the summer of 2011─ that’s the sort of the worst nightmare for intelligence services because any time that al Qaeda had access to someone from Western European countries like France, they would try to operationalize that person.  That person could give them insights about Western culture, help them develop plans to carry out attacks.

NARRATOR:  Peter Cherif arranged for al Qaeda to give Kouachi terror training and money─ $20,000, according to U.S. intelligence.  A plot began to take shape.

LOUIS CAPRIOLI:  [through interpreter]  During that time, they come up with the idea of avenging the Prophet Muhammad and of attacking people who publish caricatures of the Prophet, and specifically in France, Charlie Hebdo.

NARRATOR:  After three weeks in Yemen, Cherif Kouachi returned to France undetected.  He and his brother Said now became an al Qaeda sleeper cell.  U.S. intelligence learned that one of the Kouachis had visited Yemen and alerted the French, who started monitoring them.  But they discovered nothing of the Charlie Hebdo plot.

Surveillance resources were already stretched, and the number of European extremists was about to surge.

In 2012, the war in Syria dramatically changed the European security landscape.  It spawned a new jihadist movement, ISIS, which set out to be even more brutal than al Qaeda.  In 2014, the group formally split from al Qaeda and declared a caliphate, or Islamic state, and summoned all Muslims to join them.

DELORES DELGADO, Chief Counterterror Prosecutor, Spain:  [through interpreter]  And the effect of that call is brutal.  It’s, well, extraordinary.  Our investigations multiplied extraordinarily.

NARRATOR:  Delores Delgado is the chief counterterror prosecutor of Spain’s high court.  As Spain’s liaison to France and Belgium, she worked closely with her European counterparts to monitor the exploding numbers of ISIS recruits.

DOLORES DELGADO:  [through interpreter]  There was a call for young people, a call for women, a call for children, and it’s not to travel to the Sahel or Waziristan, it’s to go to Syria.  And Syria is right next door.  Going to Syria is very cheap and it’s very easy.

NARRATOR:  Thousands of young European Muslims joined up.  Unlike recruits to al Qaeda, aspiring ISIS militants often knew little about Islam.

MARC TRÉVIDIC,Chief Anti-Terror Magistrate, France, 2007-15:   [through interpreter]  It was open bar.  Anyone who wanted to join the Islamic State could do so.  It was well known that al Qaeda had created filters.  You had to show you were trustworthy.  There were a series of tests and an apprenticeship.  It was not all that easy. 

In this case, anyone can join.  Even crazy people, very violent people, petty criminals.  I even saw young people who were not yet radicalized going to Syria.  It was just a trend, a need to have fun and escape their boring lives.  I’d never experienced anything like it before.

NARRATOR:  One country, Belgium, provided more ISIS militants for its size than any other in Europe.  Among them was a petty criminal named Abdelhamid Abaaoud.  The son of a shopkeeper from Brussels, Abaaoud had spent time in prison for assault and minor crimes.

As ISIS was emerging in Syria, Abaaoud began to draw on his criminal network to recruit volunteers to the cause.

ALAIN GRIGNARD, Sr. Counterterror Officer, Belgian Police:  [through interpreter]  Abaaoud had a particular profile which allowed him to recruit a whole network that obeyed him.

NARRATOR:  Alain Grignard is a senior counterterror officer with the Belgian federal police, an expert in Islamic extremism who speaks fluent Arabic.  His agency started tracking Abaaoud’s network in 2013.

ALAIN GRIGNARD:  [through interpreter]  I think these recruits obeyed him not only for ideological reasons, but also because he was a ringleader, because they had gone to school together, because they were friends or family, a lot of connections that are difficult to assess when you’re not inside these circles.

NARRATOR:  Many of Abaaoud’s recruits came from a single Brussels neighborhood, Molenbeek, the country’s second-poorest district, with a large population of unemployed young people.

ALAIN GRIGNARD:  [through interpreter]  Molenbeek is a neighborhood where there are lot of immigrants, a lot of petty crime, and a whole series of networks that won’t snitch on each other, whether armed robbers or terrorists.  They might be frowned upon, but no one will turn them in because people went to school or prison with them, or because people believe in the cause, or they are afraid.  In the end, there are many reasons why no one is reported.

NARRATOR:  Abaaoud was able to recruit his team with little interference from Belgian security forces.

For years, police and intelligence services in Belgium have been hampered by limited budgets, bureaucratic infighting and weak laws for crime and terrorism.  One of Abaaoud’s crew was a robber who had shot and wounded a police officer with an AK47, but he served only four years in prison.

MATT OLSEN, Director, National Counterterrorism Center, 2011-2014:  Fundamentally, some of the laws in Belgium seem quite out of date.  The counterterrorism infrastructure─ as much as there are individuals with a great deal of experience, the infrastructure is not there and the laws and policies to support the type of response that’s needed to take on the level of threat which we see now.

NARRATOR:  Abaaoud left Belgium to join ISIS in 2013.  Others from his Molenbeek crew soon followed. 

ABDELHAMID ABAAOUD:  [subtitles]  We used to tow jetskis, quad bikes, motocross─

NARRATOR:  In Syria, Abaaoud embraced the Islamic State’s culture of extreme violence. 

ABDELHAMID ABAAOUD:  [subtitles]  Now you can film my new trailer.

NARRATOR:  Then in August 2014, Western powers began to bomb ISIS strongholds.

ALAIN GRIGNARD:  [through interpreter]  From the moment the coalition started bombing the Islamic State in August 2014, things changed, of course.  ISIS developed a logic of revenge, which intensified along with the bombardments.  This meant that the people who wanted to launch actions in Europe gained in authority.

NARRATOR:  In late 2014, ISIS began to create an external operations unit.  It developed a plan for a campaign of revenge attacks against Europe.  The unit would deploy as many as 200 terrorist operatives to launch attacks in their home countries.

At the same time, hundreds more fighters were returning to Europe without specific terrorist missions, and hundreds of Europeans had been radicalized at home without visiting Syria.  Any one of them could have posed a threat.

ROB WAINWRIGHT, Director, Europol:  You know, 5,000 European nationals that have gone out to Syria and Iraq, we don’t know exactly how many have come back.  We kind of figure around a third of that, so you know, 1,500 or more.  So it’s extremely difficult, I think, to get it right in terms of who─ who do we monitor and how do we monitor them because we don’t have the resources, or indeed, the culture in a society to put 24/7 surveillance on thousands of citizens every day.

NARRATOR:  To make matters worse, the 28 countries of the European Union are often wary about sharing intelligence with each other.

ALAIN GRIGNARD:  [through interpreter]  The protection of sources and methods makes it difficult to share intelligence.  When you see the difficulty we have in Europe coming to agreement on basic subjects, it’s even harder when it comes to intelligence sharing.

NARRATOR:  As more and more ISIS recruits returned to Europe, the authorities in France and Belgium were overwhelmed.

MARC TRÉVIDIC:  [through interpreter]  Every week, people would come back from Syria.  There was nothing except Syria.  It was all about Syria.  There were so many cases related to Syria that people who should have been watched just could not be.   Clearly, we can’t do everything, and we didn’t have the means ─ we still don’t ─ to monitor all of this.

LOUIS CAPRIOLI:  [through interpreter]  That brings up the issue of having to make choices.  That is, among all the possibilities of targets to monitor, thousands of targets to monitor, it’s necessary to make choices.

NARRATOR:  In June 2014, French spy chiefs made a fateful decision.  For the last three years, they had been monitoring the al Qaeda veterans of the Buttes Chaumont gang─ Cherif Kouachi and his brother Said.  Meanwhile, Kouachi’s old associate, Amedy Coulibaly, had just been released from prison.

French domestic intelligence now decided to stop watching them and shift surveillance resources onto the growing threat from ISIS.

LOUIS CAPRIOLI:  [through interpreter]  For more than three years, the surveillance and wiretappings had yielded nothing, so it was stopped at that time.  This was mid-2014, which means that for six months, the services didn’t know what the Kouachi brothers were up to and didn’t know about the alliance they developed with Amedy Coulibaly, who had never been monitored since he stepped out of prison.

January 7, 2015

NEWSCASTER:  Breaking news out of France.  French police right now are hunting for masked gunmen who stormed the offices of the satirical newspaper, opened fire in the French capital today.  At least 12 people are dead.  Four others are in critical condition.

DOLORES DELGADO, Chief Counterterror Prosecutor, Spain:  [through interpreter]  Charlie Hebdo was a turning point.  The concept of attacking in the heart of Europe was a new expression of terrorism.  We realized that it was now a reality.

NARRATOR:  Twelve people were shot dead in the Charlie Hebdo attacks.  Within hours, the names of the killers surfaced.  For the former counterterror chief Louis Caprioli, it was unsettling news.

LOUIS CAPRIOLI, Counterterror Chief, French Domestic Intel., 1998-04:  [through interpreter]  It quickly became known it was the Kouachis.  That rang a bell immediately.  I thought, “Yes, these are the people from 2005.”  So immediately, I thought that there might have been a failure somewhere.  When an attack happens and you had no prior intelligence, that’s one thing.  But when you find out that you could have prevented it, that is a tragedy.

NARRATOR:  After a massive manhunt, the Kouachi brothers were killed in a shootout with French police.  They declared allegiance to al Qaeda shortly before they died.  That same day, their friend, Amedy Coulibaly, carried out his part of the plot, shooting four people dead in a Jewish supermarket before being killed by a SWAT team.  Although he had been radicalized by al Qaeda, he claimed allegiance to ISIS.

MARC TRÉVIDIC, Chief Anti-Terror Magistrate, France:  [through interpreter]  I was surprised.  At first, I couldn’t understand this alliance between Coulibaly from ISIS and Kouachi of al Qaeda.  How was the association between al Qaeda and ISIS even possible? 

I realized it’s simply a question of relationships.  It’s just that they knew each other.  Personal connections sometimes go beyond a group’s strategy.  They may fight each other in Syria, but can still do things together in France.

NARRATOR:  As France reeled from the Charlie Hebdo attacks, another plot was being uncovered across the border in Belgium.  On 15th of January, Belgian police raided a house in the town of Verviers, killing two terrorist suspects and wounding one.

U.S. and French spy agencies had helped track their return from Syria.  Investigators found evidence that they were part of an ISIS cell deployed by the young Belgian extremist Abdelhamid Abaaoud.

ERIC VAN DER SYPT, Counterterror Prosecutor, Belgium:  Because of the Verviers case, Abaaoud came very clearly in the picture.

NARRATOR:  Eric Van der Sypt is a Belgian counterterror prosecutor.

ERIC VAN DER SYPT:  We realized he was active in the recruitment of people from France, from Belgium.  He trained them, and he was responsible for sending back people to Western Europe also, people that want to die, they’re not afraid to die, and they’re not afraid to kill other people while doing so.

NARRATOR:  Abaaoud now became the subject of an international manhunt.  European and U.S. intelligence detected his cell phone in Athens, but by the time Greek police raided his safe house, he had already fled.  It was the first of what would be several missed opportunities to capture him.

ERIC VAN DER SYPT:  Abaaoud disappeared, and it’s a pity we lost him because we knew who he was, what he was doing, and sure, we would have loved to have captured him, it’s a sure thing, but he got away.  He managed to escape and he managed to go back to Syria.

NARRATOR:  Over the next few months, ISIS sent a series of lone operatives to attack Europe.  Authorities suspected Abaaoud was involved.

Then in June 2015, Spanish counterterror officials made a breakthrough.  With the help of U.S. intelligence, they detected an alleged ISIS fighter who had just returned to Europe from Syria via Poland.  The Poles arrested and questioned him, along with Spanish investigators.  His name was Abdeljail Ait El-Kaid.

DOLORES DELGADO, Chief Counterterror Prosecutor, Spain:  [through interpreter]  A character like El-Kaid being arrested generated huge expectation from our colleagues in other countries.  The whole world wanted to know what El-Kaid was going to tell us.

NARRATOR:  Ait El-Kaid admitted he’d been sent to Europe to commit an attack.

DOLORES DELGADO:  [through interpreter]  And the one organizing it all was Abaaoud.  He was the brains and the organizer of this brigade whose mission was to come back to Europe and commit attacks here on European soil.

Well, from my point of view, we had prevented an attack.  We’ve had someone in front of us who was with Abaaoud, who was trained by him, who was chosen by him, and now he was in prison.  And well, that’s very satisfying.  I can’t say it any other way.

NARRATOR:  Ait El-Kaid gave up the name of another suspected operative sent by Abaaoud to hit European targets.  In August, the man was arrested by French police when he returned from Syria.  His name was Reda Hame.

Marc Trévidic, who was weeks away from the end of his term as France’s top counterterror magistrate, now questioned Hame.

MARC TRÉVIDIC:  [through interpreter]  To begin with, he said he had a terrorist mission.  The general idea was to shoot a crowd, to shoot people, and his mission was to do so during a rock concert.

But the target was only to be given to him later on.  There was the idea that, “You go back to France, and we will contact you with encrypted messages.  That’s how we will operate.”  He surprised me especially when he explained how much Abaaoud wanted to hurt us.  He was very clear, he will do whatever it takes.  He wanted to commit a huge attack at all costs.  It was quite chilling.

NARRATOR:  On August 21st, just one week later, the warnings were confirmed.  A heavily armed man, Ayoub El Khazzani, opened fire on a high-speed train between Amsterdam and Paris.  The gunman was overpowered by three American tourists, and no one was killed.

A year earlier, Spanish authorities had actually warned their French counterparts about Khazzani, who they’d tracked from Spain to France.  But investigators believe he eventually made his way to Syria, where he was allegedly trained and sent back to Europe by Abaaoud.

MARC TRÉVIDIC:  [through interpreter]  I had the feeling that these were warning signs, that, in fact, they were just gaining ground, carrying out smaller operations while they were organizing something bigger because any terrorist attack occupies all of our investigators, as there is so much work after an attack.  All of this was intended to conceal the bigger plot.

NARRATOR:  Abaaoud was now wanted across the continent.

ALAIN GRIGNARD, Sr. Counterterror Officer, Belgian Police:  [through interpreter]  But we had no idea where Abaaoud could be.  Apparently, no one knew where he was.  According to Reda Hame, he was in Raqqa, but we had no way of locating him.

NARRATOR:  In fact, by September, Abaaoud was already back in Europe laying the groundwork for the most ambitious plot yet.  Investigators say he slipped in through Greece with the help of smugglers.

Policing of Europe’s external borders is left largely to individual nations, whose budgets and capabilities vary.

LOUIS CAPRIOLI, Counterterror Chief, French Domestic Intel., 1998-:  [through interpreter]  So there’s a gap, an abyss, and all the terrorists can rush in and easily circulate between Europe, France, Turkey, and of course, Syria and Iraq.  I believe it’s one of the flaws of the European Union.  It has never been able to ensure the protection of our borders.

MARC TRÉVIDIC:  [through interpreter]  It is completely porous.  We are in a totally open system.  They can use real papers, real fake papers, fake fake papers, real real papers.  It’s horrible, but that’s how it is.

NARRATOR:  Abaaoud then took advantage of Europe’s open internal borders to travel freely from country to country.

MARC TRÉVIDIC:  [through interpreter]  There are just no borders.  There are none.  Clearly, they do not exist.  Although we are under a state of emergency, there are none.  We are not an island.  We are on the European continent, and the enemy is at our doorstep.  He can come from either side, by sea, air and land.  That is the reality.

NARRATOR:  As the war in Syria intensified in 2015, Germany declared it would welcome all refugees fleeing the conflict.  Hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants flooded into Europe, but there was no comprehensive system to vet them.  Most came in through Greece, which was overwhelmed and it could only thoroughly screen about a third of the arrivals.

Counterterror chiefs say they warned about terrorists exploiting this opportunity.

JEAN-LOUIS BRUGUIERE, Fmr. French Counterterror Magistrate:  [through interpreter]  This is the nightmare.  This is the problem.  ISIS claims to have infiltrated many hundreds of fighters.  That’s taken from their propaganda.

NARRATOR:  Jean-Louis Bruguiere was a top French counterterrorism judge for two decades.  He says the migrant crisis exposed the dysfunction of the European Union’s approach to security.

JEAN-LOUIS BRUGUIERE:  [through interpreter]  There was no coordinated European policy.  Germany was playing alone.  France did not agree.  No other country agreed on this.  So on important strategic subjects that affect the whole of Europe, Europe’s security, we have difficulty in finding a consensus.

ROB WAINWRIGHT, Director, Europol:  To be fair, at the time, the sort of mood within Germany, the mood around many countries in Europe was one of, “We’re living through a great humanitarian tragedy.”  These desperately poor, afflicted people needed a place of refuge, and it was Europe’s job to provide that.

Now we’re saying there’s been some dreadful terrorist attacks, and on reflection, maybe that wasn’t the right thing to do.  Well, you know, that’s a little harsh.

NARRATOR:  Abaaoud now used the chaos of the refugee flow to get a team of militants into and around Europe.  Two of the team entered Europe with refugees on the island of Leros.  One used a stolen Syrian passport flagged by Interpol as possibly being used by terrorists.  But Greek authorities weren’t checking Interpol’s database regularly, and the men were let through.

Bombmaker Najim Laachraoui and one of the leaders of the cell, Mohamed Belkaid, are also thought to have entered Europe through Greece.

ERIC VAN DER SYPT:  They both had false Belgian identity papers.  It’s a tool they used.  I think they used the fact that there were a lot of refugees at that time over there, so they could blend in to stay anonymous

NARRATOR:  On September 9th, Laachraoui and Belkaid were met at the Budapest train station, then packed with refugees, by another suspected member of the cell, Salah Abdeslam.  Hours later, police stopped their Mercedes at the Austria-Hungary border.  They were known extremists.  One was wanted on a terrorism warrant.  One was on an EU watch list.

But the police didn’t spot anything suspicious during questioning or in their databases, and the car was waved on.

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA, ProPublica:  Why were they let through without further investigation?

ROB WAINWRIGHT:  It’s very easy after the event to say, “Well, we should have got this guy because he was on the record.”

We’re dealing with, you know, 20-plus countries in Europe, sharing a different set of information systems, not all of them sort of interconnected, not all of them holding sensitive terrorist data.  Not all the intelligence is shared with all of the partners on all of the systems at the same time.

And we have a challenge, I think, in Europe where we have different information systems in different parts─ in different countries, but also in different parts of the EU architecture that are not hooked up.

NARRATOR:  By the end of October, Abaaoud had everything in place─ weapons, explosives, targets and the men to hit them.

ALAIN GRIGNARD:  [through interpreter]  The question everyone had was not if something would happen, but rather when and where.

Paris, November 13, 2015

NEWSCASTER:  ─we’re coming on the air to tell you about a situation unfolding right now in Paris, where there have been a number of apparent attacks─

NEWSCASTER:  Three people are dead in multiple attacks across the French capital.  There were at least six shootings in various locations.  And at this moment, police are storming a concert hall─

MARC TRÉVIDIC:  [through interpreter]  You can imagine how I felt, after all the years I’d spent in the anti-terrorist section.  As I got home on the 13th of November and heard about the Bataclan, I immediately thought of Reda and the rock concert.  And at that moment, you think [expletive deleted]

ERIC VAN DER SYPT, Belgian Counterterror Prosecutor:  I remember saying to myself, “I hope there is not a Belgian connection,” and I was proven wrong the following hours already.  And the Belgian connection, if I may call it like that, was soon very, very clear.

ALAIN GRIGNARD, Counterterror Officer, Belgian Police:  [through interpreter]  We started to understand that the Belgians are involved.  And suddenly, Abaaoud’s name resurfaces, Abaaoud, whom we’d been looking for for months and who we believed was still in Syria.  This was obviously a shock.  But we also felt uneasy.  How did we not see this coming?  Our intelligence was maybe not as good as it should have been.

NARRATOR:  One hundred thirty people were killed in the attacks.  Most of the suspected plotters were already known to the authorities and multiple opportunities to stop them had been missed.

At least six were wanted on international arrest warrants for terrorism.  One was under police surveillance with wiretaps and a hidden camera.  At least seven were on terrorist watch lists.  At least 12 were stopped, questioned and even arrested as they traveled around Europe and back and forth to Syria to prepare the Paris plot.

MATT OLSEN, Dir., Natl. Counterterrorism Ctr., 2011-14:  You know, these individuals were on the radar.  They had traveled to Syria.  They were known to law enforcement and intelligence officials. 

Even with that information in the hands of intelligence and law enforcement, they were able to really carry out large-scale, spectacular, catastrophic style attacks because law enforcement and border patrol officials from one country simply don’t communicate with their counterparts in another country in a way that would make information that they possess actionable, and you know, really disrupt or stop a terrorist from moving across their border.

NARRATOR:  The Paris attacks were staged almost entirely from Belgium.  That’s where the bombs were made, where coordinators directed the attacks by phone.  French security chiefs say the Belgians should have done more to stop the plot.

JEAN-LOUIS BRUGUIERE, Fmr.  French Counterterror Magistrate:  [through interpreter]  It’s not by chance that the whole network was based in Belgium and not in France or Italy.  They chose a place that is both the weakest link and where there were networks that existed for years. 

This group should have been detected.  The signs were not small.  They had a definite red flag.  The Belgian authorities did not detect the threat to Paris.  This is indisputably an example of a system which has completely failed.

ALAIN GRIGNARD, Sr. Counterterror Officer, Belgian Police:  [through interpreter]  It’s a bit too easy for all these big countries with a lot of police officers and foreign intelligence services to criticize Belgium.  We’re a small country.  We don’t have a police culture.  We don’t have our own foreign intelligence service.  It’s impossible to keep an eye on everyone.  Twenty-hour surveillance with just two people happens only in TV shows.  So this means we can only watch a few individuals.  People don’t quite realize this.

NARRATOR:  Five days after the attacks, Abaaoud was tracked down to an apartment on the outskirts of Paris.  In the battle that followed, one of the plotters detonated a suicide vest.  Abaaoud’s remains were identified two days later.  But then investigators discovered that other suspected leaders of the cell were still on the loose.

ALAIN GRIGNARD:  [through interpreter]  We realized that there were people in Belgium who seemed more important than Abaaoud.  Through phone intercepts, we discovered that Abaaoud asked for instructions or help from people in Belgium.  So we got to work on them.

NARRATOR:  Seven remaining suspects were holed up in safe houses back in their old neighborhoods in Brussels, where they were working on a new plot.  Unknown to Belgian intelligence and the NSA, which was helping hunt the fugitives, the bombmaker Najim Laachraoui was in direct contact with a shadowy ISIS chief in Syria known as Abu Ahmad.

Abu Ahmad avoided interception by using encrypted communications to give detailed orders and bomb-making instructions.

MATT OLSEN:  The individuals were sharing information.  They were getting instruction on how to make explosives from individuals in Syria.  The content of those communications were encrypted.  There’s no technological way to intercept those communications.  We have not solved this problem.  This is a problem that is with us today.

NARRATOR:  Investigators say Abu Ahmad worked closely with another senior ISIS operative in Syria known as Abu Sulayman al Fransi.  U.S. counterterror officials believe he is a 26-year-old Moroccan immigrant who grew up in France, served in the French Foreign Legion, and did prison time for drug dealing before joining ISIS.

He is now suspected of playing a lead role in overseeing the Paris and Brussels plots.

MATT OLSEN:  It shows a level of direction from ISIS.  You know, this is not simply an attack that was inspired by ISIS propaganda or on-line communication.  This is some─ an attack that was actually being directed at a degree of specificity by ISIS central, ISIS leadership.

NARRATOR:  In March, after a four-month hunt, Belgian police discovered a series of apartments rented using false identities, and finally closed in on the cell.  They shot dead one of the suspects and captured another, Salah Abdeslam.  But the bombmaker and others were hiding elsewhere.

ALAIN GRIGNARD:  [through interpreter]  I thought we were reaching the end point and that there were only a few left.  I have to admit that we had no idea there was still an operational unit in Belgium.

March 22, 2016

NEWSCASTER:  Breaking news right now, two explosions rocking the main terminal at Brussels airport.  There are reports of another attack, an explosion at a subway, a metro station.

NEWSCASTER:  We should underscore that this appears to be a coordinated attack.

NARRATOR:  Thirty-two people died in the Brussels bombings.  ISIS has vowed more attacks in Europe even as they lose ground in Syria and Iraq.

LOUIS CAPRIOLI, Counterterror Chief, French Domestic Intel., 1998-:  [through interpreter]  Now we realize the extent of the phenomenon, that it’s no longer one, two, three dozen individuals, but there are thousands of people in Syria and Iraq who are ready to die and that there are thousands here in Europe who are also ready to die.

The human and technical means in our possession are not proportionate.  We won’t be able to control, monitor and wiretap everyone.  So at one point, it’s evident that people will be able to attack us.

NARRATOR:  In response, European leaders have set up a new counterterrorism center and recently approved the passenger name record to bolster border security across the continent.

But the threat has worsened a political crisis for the European Union.  In June, the United Kingdom voted in a referendum to leave the EU.  Other countries are considering doing the same.  The counterterror chiefs say the systemic problems remain and Europe is as vulnerable as ever.

JEAN-LOUIS BRUGUIERE:  [through interpreter]  November 13th should never have happened.  The Brussels attacks should never have happened.  The flaws in the European system are multiple.  They’re institutional.  I’m not sure what we’re waiting for.  Do we have to wait for hundreds more deaths?

ALAIN GRIGNARD:  [through interpreter]  The situation has never been worse.  I think it’s an illusion to believe we’ll be able to protect ourselves and live in a sort of bubble.  Everyone dreams of a society with zero risks, but the zero risk option does not exist.

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