Alain Rodier: « The only certainty is that chaos will persist »

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Alain Rodier1

Alain Rodier. DR.

Mohsen Abdelmoumen: You are the author, among others, of “Grand angle sur le terrorisme” (Wide Angle on Terrorism) and “Grand angle sur la mafia” (Wide Angle on Mafia). In these two very relevant books, you analyze terrorism and mafias, which brings us back to the links between these two phenomena. One is talking more and more about hybrid terrorism related to serious criminality, what is your opinion on that?

Alain Rodier: The term « hybrid terrorism » emerged to highlight the links between terrorist movements and crime in general and organized in particular. A first phenomenon is well known: that of the petty criminals who enter into terrorism. Interest is then reciprocal. Different « losers » see it as a way of « fulfill oneself » by getting out of their criminal anonymity by espousing a cause that, in their vast majority, they do not know. What is amazing is that they are not only able to give their lives for this cause (like almost all active soldiers), but that their essential aim is martyrdom. Apart from Japanese suicide bombers, modern history knows no similar cases. The great question that is posed and which has not yet been answered satisfactorily is: why?

For their part, the terrorist movements appreciate these recruits who are already trained in clandestine life because of their previous criminal activities. In addition, terrorist cells often have to be self-financing, and there is nothing like criminal activities to reach it. The example of Mokhtar Belmokhtar alias Mr. Marlboro (whom the rumor says killed but he was announced dead several times) is striking. His specialty, which was much appreciated by the GSPC (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat) and then by AQIM, was smuggling. Apart from being a warlord became legendary through numerous mediatized terrorist operations, he was the first logistician of these terrorist movements. Moreover, no one seems to have ever been moved by the gleaming SUVs of Asian origin present in quantity on all fronts where Salafists jihadists are active…

Organized crime is more complicated. Generally, bosses do not share the same interests as « emirs ». However, organized crime is driven by a single purpose: to make financial profits by all imaginable means but by remaining as discreet as possible. « Advertising » harms « business ». The « Emirs », for their part, seek it to make known their « cause ». That said, some examples suggest that they intersect from time to time. Many questions arise about the channels of migrants who join Europe and the reception camps, some of which would be run by the mafias in Italy.

You wrote the book “Al-Qaïda, les connexions mondiales du terrorisme” (Al-Qaeda, the global connections of terrorism). Is it possible to say that Daesh has the same connections as Al-Qaeda, or is this organization, born out of the same matrix as Al Qaeda, undergone changes?

Daesh, originally stem from the Iraqi branch of Al-Qaeda « historic canal » has its central core straddling Syria and Iraq. The outer provinces (the « wilayas ») are predominantly composed of former subgroups of al-Qaeda branches, particularly in Africa, Far East, Afghanistan, Pakistan and in the Caucasus. For example, in September 2014, a group of fighters led by the emir of the central region of AQIM in Algeria joined Daesh, taking the name « Soldiers of the caliphate ». To be recognized, they murdered Frenchman Hervé Gourdel. In September of the following year, the Katiba « al Ansar » active in Kabylie joined the Islamic State. The links between the central command and its wilayas seem to be much looser than in the time of Al-Qaeda’s splendor. Namely, very few representatives of this central command were sent on assignment abroad. Al-Qaeda « historic canal » has always sent representatives to its branches located outside its favorite zone in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In summary, a number of groups have obtained the « Daesh label » but have no direct or indirect operational contact with Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri alias Al-Baghdadi.

« Proche-Orient: Coups de projecteur pour comprendre » (Near-East: Focus on Understanding), your book offers to the readers some insight for understand the Near East in its complexity. You have done an in-depth work on this part of the world that you know, and which is contrary to clichés relayed by the mass media. How do you see developments in the Middle East, both in security and politics?

The starting point is that Syria and Iraq have ceased to exist as centralized States. Whole regions escape the authority of the two capitals according to ethnic or/and religious divisions. Without direct support from Moscow and Tehran, the regime of Bashar Assad would probably be fallen or at least in very great difficulty. Finally, no party is in a position to control militarily the whole Syria or Iraq.

The Kurds who succeed at the game are divided into pro-Turks (the Democratic Party of Kurdistan in Northern Iraq led by Massoud Barzani), pro-Iranians (the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan controlled by Jalal Talabani), and the Syrian Democratic Union (PYD) party close cousin of the PKK but opposed to Barzani. The PYD is used by the Americans to fight Daesh in a coalition (the Syrian Democratic Forces, FDS) of which it is the only reliable component… Turkey participates directly and voluntarily in these inter-Kurdish oppositions, its only concern being to prohibit the creation of a « great Kurdistan » on its southern borders.

The Syrian-Iraqi theater is the object of a war of influence that goes far beyond the local actors. It directly opposes the Shiite theocratic regime in Tehran to the Saudi royal family. The new US administration stays firmly behind Riyadh while Tehran is backed by Moscow. This war of influence has an extension in Yemen where the elected power supported by an Arab coalition led by Riyadh is opposed to the Houthi rebellion allied with the former president Saleh.

To complete this apocalyptic photography, Al-Qaeda « historical canal » and Daesh are present throughout this area taking advantage of the decomposition of States to prosper, despite the blows that are struck to them by the American special forces and their Kurdish, Iraqis and – to a much lesser extent – Saudi allies. For them as for Israel, Tehran is the priority enemy. As for the Palestinians, their cause doesn’t captivate any more people in the region, except Tehran and Ankara, which use it as a means of putting pressure on the Hebrew State.

If an inventory is particularly difficult to make, forecasts for the future are a challenge. There are too many unknowns in the equation. The only certainty is that chaos will persist because no party has the power to bring viable solutions. Syria, Iraq and Yemen will continue their fragmentation into fiefs led by warlords who are involved in the « Afghanization » of the situation.

You participated in the very interesting collective book « La face cachée des révolutions arabes » (The Hidden Face of the Arab Revolutions) of the CF2R in which contributed my friend the late Anne-Marie Lizin and in which you signed the chapter « Al-Qaïda, grand gagnant des révolutions arabes » (Al-Qaeda, great winner of the Arab revolutions). Is Al-Qaeda the only one which has benefited from the Arab Spring or is Daesh another winner of this chaos? In your opinion, where does this terrorist group come from?

Globally, the Salafist-jihadists did not contribute to the « Arab revolutions ». They were, like everyone else, surprised by the magnitude of these movements and took the marching train taking advantage of the weakening of States. Thus, in 2012, Al-Qaeda has extended its fields of action notably by projecting its Iraqi branch (the Islamic State of Iraq) in Syria and renaming it the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Daesh was born from the split of ISIL into two factions: the al-Nusra Front whose emir al-Joulani remained faithful to Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri and ISIL renamed the « Islamic State » led by Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi. Carried away by his megalomania, he self-proclaimed himself « Caliph » of all Muslims. All must pledge allegiance to him or be treated as « apostates. »

We are increasingly talking about the crucial problem of « returnees », that is to say the jihadists gone from Western Europe fighting in the ranks of Daesh in Syria and Iraq and coming back very many. The figures available are worrying. In your experience, what are the most appropriate measures to deal with such a situation? How can the intelligence services of European countries face to this phenomenon?

This phenomenon is not true for Europe only because « returnees » are also starting to return to their country of origin or to third countries – for example in Tunisia. If THE SOLUTION existed, I think it would have already been implemented. The problem number one is the fact that the « returnees » come to enlarge the ranks of the radicalization suspects whose number is in thousands in Europe.

The second is not directly related to the intelligence services, but to the different laws in the European countries, and even more seriously, to those members of the Schengen area because within it there are no border controls. The effort should therefore be on harmonizing legislation but this is extremely complicated because these reforms are of a political nature. They must be debated and voted on by the popular representations of each country.

To return to the specific case of « returnees », it is necessary to note that it is essential to attempt to treat the problem upstream by detecting them at the start or when they are on the return. Cooperation with all the countries concerned – even those whose leaders are considered pariah – is therefore indispensable. Whether we like it or not, it will be necessary one day to discuss with the regime in place in Damascus since it lasts, that it is officially still legal because represented at the UN.

In your opinion, is there an optimization in the field of cooperation between services to fight al-Qaeda or Daesh? How do you see the cooperation between the Western services? Are there any advances in cooperation between the Western services and the Syrian, Russian and Algerian services?

I have partially answered this question previously. In Europe, undeniable progress has been made since the attacks in 2015 but efforts should continue to be made in the area of speed of information transmission between services, the development of operational cooperation and sometimes the right of « pursuit » outside national borders.

With the Maghreb countries in general and Algeria in particular, cooperation between professionals is excellent. There would be a need to increase state ties, since in all democratic countries it is the policies that give instructions and are ultimately responsible for what is happening. The services are under their control and apply the instructions given. My opinion is that it is advisable to go ahead by tidying the painful sequelae of the past in the ray of the books of History.

With Syria and Russia, everything remains to be done or to be redone. These are also political decisions. For example, after the collapse of the USSR and the opening up to the Western countries, bilateral political relations began to be good. This has been followed by the cooperation of the services in the field of the fight against terrorism and organized crime which has been quite effective. But since the political situation has deteriorated, inter-service cooperation has been reduced to its simplest form.

Don’t you think that a strategic cooperation with the Algerian services and the Algerian army is necessary particularly to counter the chaos that has set up in Sahel with the destabilization of Libya?

For the security of the Maghreb and the Sahel, Algiers is unavoidable in all areas: political, ideological, military and of course intelligence. I think that there is a good cooperation with Europe. One of the problems that hampers the fight against chaos is mainly political and relational incompatibilities that may exist permanently or temporarily between different countries of the region. The interest of all depends on the establishment of a constructive dialogue. I don’t think that is the case today.

Europe has experienced various attacks in Paris, Brussels, Berlin, London, etc. Have any effective measures been taken to counter any future attacks? Knowing that risk 0 does not exist, in your opinion, is Europe still a privileged target of terror groups Daesh or Al Qaeda?

Let us be clear: Europe is not the preferred target of Al-Qaeda and Daesh. For Al-Qaeda, very clearly, its main objectives are the United States then, failing that, the Westerners. For both movements, the priority targets are the Muslim countries whose leaders are considered « corrupt » and the populations « disorientated ». The victims of the Salafist-jihadist terrorists are, above all, Muslims spread from the Middle East to the Far East. In fact, Daesh is settling quietly in Indonesia, a country with more than 200 million Muslims.

However, Daesh always asks jihad volunteers to join the caliphate, and only if this is not possible – which is beginning to be seriously the case – to move into action on the spot.

As an experienced agent, do you not think that the fight against terrorism is not only military but also ideological? In this case, can we say that France must reconsider its alliances with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, knowing that Saudi Arabia is the main ideological matrix of the terrorist phenomenon?

You’re absolutely right. For all societies attacked by the « terrorist phenomenon », there is always an ideology because terrorism is only a means of combat in the same way as guerrilla warfare. I have always found that the term « war on terror » was false because there is no war against a technical means. It is as if during the Second World War we had fought against the Kriegspiel. No, we were fighting Nazi ideology.

It is first necessary to clearly define the ideology of the enemy. Today, it is Salafism-jihadism that advocates a return to the sacred texts of the Islam of the origins with the ultimate objective, in several generations, of establishing a world caliphate governed by Shari’a.

I fully understand that this ideology can seduce many individuals especially that the propaganda of the Salafist-jihadist networks is very professionally carried out. It always starts with: « Muslims are victims and they must defend themselves … » Faced with these ideas, it is fitting that each state having well designated the opponent, it affirms the values that govern its society. For the West in general and especially for Europe, which was born after many wars, the last two of which have caused millions of victims, the central value is the freedom of the individual(1) which must evolve in a democratic system that also allows for equal rights (for example between women and men) accompanied by a duty of fraternity directed in particular towards the weakest (the disabled, the unemployed, political refugees, visible minorities, etc.).

A very positive point is to be noted in Europe. Despite the efforts of the Salafist-jihadists to take up the communities against each other (in particular with blind attacks but also with particularly clever operations of influence), the populations showed in their immense majority the biggest calm and continued to live normally. This resiliency capacity impressed me very much. It is advisable to continue in this direction whatever happens.

As for relations with Qatar and Saudi Arabia, they must be free from laxity, even if there are obvious commercial reasons. I said above that it was necessary to maintain relations with everyone but without giving up on our values and in warning our interlocutors that we do not tolerate any proselytizing, whether political or religious. This is what should govern our relations with the two countries mentioned with which we are trading in the direction of our common interests. This approach is not specific to Qatar and Saudi Arabia, but to all countries on the planet. In this regard, I refer you to my last online book published by UPPR in May: « Grand angle sur l’espionnage russe » (Wide angle on Russian espionage) which is also topical.

1.On the other hand, the freedom of some people stops where the one of others starts. Individual freedom does not mean anarchy.

Since the attacks in Europe, have European states learned the lessons and invested in human intelligence? Is the budget allocated to intelligence services commensurate with the threat of permanent attack?

Yes. Great efforts have been made and it is difficult to go further, whether in human or financial resources. Improvements can still be made in several areas, including communication, information sharing, pooling of resources, etc. The organizational reforms of intelligence decided in France in 2014/2015 are beginning to bear fruit. The personnel who have been recruited in the emergency have completed their training and are now integrated into the plan, ready to deal with the new threats (1). These new organizations should not be inscribed in the marble, as they must evolve according to the threats that are constantly changing.

1.Nevertheless, zero risk does not exist. Terrorist acts will take place in the future.

After every attack yesterday in several European capitals, today in Manchester, we have the impression that we are living an eternal renewal and that terrorists impose their agenda by striking wherever and whenever they want. In your opinion, can we prevent a terrorist act? Should we not envisage creating specific crowd preparation programs for a possible attack in order to avoid more victims?

It is possible to prevent many terrorist acts but unfortunately it is illusory to believe that one can prevent them all. Jihadists are numerous and, even more serious, « soft targets » like playful manifestations are impossible to protect in their entirety. It is true that a crowd education program is useful. This has already begun in Europe, particularly in schools, but it will take time for public reactions to be appropriate. People will have to be resilient because the threat will continue in the months and years to come.

Your CF2R organization (French intelligence Research Centre) led by your colleague Eric Denécé whom I have already interviewed, does an excellent job of analysis and foresight. Are the intelligence community in general and CF2R in particular being listened to by your government?

I don’t know if we are being listened to by politicians, but at least I know we are read by some of their collaborators. Now, leaders have multiple sources of information and their problem is to get an idea as fair as possible. Then comes for them the time of the decision, and there, it is extremely delicate. I must admit that I do not envy them because they often have to choose the least bad solution. In other times and under other skies, I would have told a minister of Defense: « We inform you, you decide… »

Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen


Who is Alain Rodier?

Former senior officer in the French intelligence services, Alain Rodier is deputy director of the French Center for Intelligence Research (CF2R). He is particularly charged with Islamic terrorism and organized crime. Formerly a man of the field and of reflection, he has now the necessary distance to put the events in their context. Indeed, he is following the topicality in the field of his competences for more than thirty-five years.

Alain Rodier is a regular contributor to numerous French media (BFM TV, France 24, M6, France Inter, France Info, Atlantico, Diplomatie magazine, etc.) and French-speaking foreigners (Medi1, Radio Canada, VOA, RT, etc.). He is collaborating with the RAIDS magazine (Editions Histoire et Collections) for more than ten years.

He is a lecturer in the field of contemporary risk assessment with major institutional bodies.

Alain Rodier is author of several books, including Proche-Orient: Coups de projecteur pour comprendre (Near-East: Focus on Understanding), Balland, Paris 2017; Al-Qaida, les connexions mondiales du terrorisme (Al-Qaeda, the global connections of terrorism), Ellipses, Paris 2006; Iran : la prochaine guerre ?  (Iran: the next war?), Ellipses, Paris 2007; Les Triades, la menace occultée (the Triads, the hidden threat), éditions du Rocher, Paris 2012; Le crime organisé du Canada à la Terre de Feu (The Organized Crime from Canada to Tierra del Fuego), éditions du Rocher, Paris 2013; Grand angle sur le terrorisme (E-book) (Wide angle on terrorism), éditions UPPR, Paris 2015; Grand angle sur les mafias (E-book) (Wide angle on mafia), éditions UPPR, Paris 2015; Grand angle sur l’espionnage russe (E-book) (Wide angle on the Russian espionage), éditions UPPR, Paris 2016.

Under the CF2R, Alain Rodier participated in the writing of three collective works: Guerre secrète contre Al-Qaeda (Secret War against Al-Qaeda), Ellipses, Paris 2002; Al-Qaeda : les nouveaux réseaux de la terreur (Al-Qaeda: the new networks of terror), Ellipses, Paris 2004; La face cachée des révolutions arabes (The Hidden Face of the Arab Revolutions), Ellipses, Paris 2012.

He is also the main editor of the Notes d’Actualité.

Published in American Herald Tribune, May 24, 2017:

In Palestine Solidarité: