Madrid And London Bombs Shape French Anti-Terror Plans

PARIS (Reuters) – France has overhauled the way it combats terrorism in the light of attacks on neighbours Britain and Spain, part of a broader response to the growing threat it sees from Islamist extremists. The first ever French strategic review on terrorism and domestic security says “Islamist-inspired world terrorism” threatens France, with disaffected home-grown youths and converts to Islam heightening the threat of attack. A key focus of the document is how to communicate with traumatised citizens to ensure criminal inquiries are not derailed by a public witch hunt against people or communities thought linked to the perpetrators. It draws heavily on the British experience, reflecting the admiration of France’s security and political establishment for London’s measured response to the July 7, 2005 suicide bomb attacks that killed 52 people. “In terms of lessons learnt, the way the British handled themselves in July 2005 was immensely important…There are so many things the Brits did right, it would have been rather stupid of us not to take some leaves from their book,” said Francois Heisbourg, one of the prime movers behind the new French doctrine agreed last month. The doctrine sets the ground rules for anti-terror laws. Central to the British success, he said, was the “Two Blairs” communication strategy: Prime Minister Tony Blair gave the political reaction while London police chief Sir Ian Blair updated the public at key points in the investigation. “It sounds very banal, but people have greater trust when politicians do politics and operational guys do operations,” Heisbourg told Reuters. Top UK anti-terrorist policeman Peter Clarke stressed in a speech last week that police had deliberately refused to give a “running commentary” on their findings, and had tried to give a “reassuring, consistent message” to the public. He said they had chosen to issue detailed statements at intervals, but without taking press questions that could have made them appear evasive or compromised the investigation. “There are some areas where you simply cannot go,” Clarke said. REACH OUT TO MUSLIMS Heisbourg said the British strategy was underpinned by the aim of establishing a national consensus, with police reaching out not just to the Muslim community but the families of the bombing suspects. “If you’re not clear about that sort of objective, you’re not going to be able to implement it when the time comes around,” said Heisbourg. “If you don’t, then you’re on the road to Guantanamo,” he said, referring to the U.S.-run detention centre on Cuba where hundreds of terrorism suspects are being held without trial, drawing widespread international criticism. “You’ll have no problem finding 70-80 percent of the population to say ‘bash the bastards’. And in a time of tension and crisis, that temptation is one that is very difficult to resist if you haven’t thought it through before.” The French review follows an update of anti-terrorism laws earlier this year, boosting phone and video surveillance and imposing longer detention periods and sentences. It also draws lessons from the Spanish government’s handling of the Madrid train bombings on March 11, 2004, which took place three days before a parliamentary election. Spain’s rightwing government, apparently heading for an election victory, initially blamed Basque separatist group ETA for the Madrid attacks. But when it emerged Islamist militants were behind the 191 deaths, angry voters threw it out of office. “When a government starts losing the trust of the people in the heat of a crisis, anything can go wrong. And this is what happened in Madrid,” Heisbourg said. The strategic review concludes: “The unity and cohesion of our country will save us from the ‘clash of civilisations’ that terrorism wants to drag us into.”