01/13/2015 05:00 EST | Updated 03/14/2015 05:59 EDT

France's Elite Counterterrorism Forces Prepare For The Worst

An officer of the GIGN (National Gendarmes Intervention Group) commandos of the elite French force, performs a military exercise during a visit by French Interior Minister Manuel Valls, unseen, at their headquarters in Satory, outside Paris, France, Wednesday, July 31, 2013. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

When three militants took hostages at two locations in and around Paris last week, the French government deployed its special counterterrorism units, elite forces that have had much experience in a country with a history of militant attacks.

The raids to free a hostage being held in a printing house northeast of Paris by two brothers and 19 other hostages at a kosher market were led by France's elite force Groupe d'Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale (GIGN).

GIGN, along with another tactical force, Recherche Assistance Intervention Dissuasion (RAID) were able to secure the safe release of all the surviving hostages (four had already been killed at the market) and kill all three hostage-takers.

Since those incidents, including the deadly attack at the Paris office of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, France has deployed 10,000 troops to protect sensitive sites — including Jewish schools and neighbourhoods.

'Very robust capabilities'

"France has been the subject of militant activity for some time. They are very tough when it comes to this approach," said Thomas Sanderson, co-director and senior fellow of the Transnational Threats Project​ at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "They have very robust capabilities for domestic security issues."

France's history with domestic militant attacks goes back decades, to the Algerian War, where it was subject to attacks from Algerian militants seeking independence. It has since been the target of a number of organizations, including the left-wing group Action Directe, the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria (GIA) and other al-Qaeda and Islamic-linked groups.

"We're probably the European country that had dealt the most with terrorism on the forefront," said Claude Moniquet, CEO of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Centre. "We have experience with this."

The GIGN was formed in 1974 following the Palestinian militants' deadly attack against Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. While the tactical unit RAID is part of the French National Police, and limits its operations for domestic crises, the GIGN  is part of the Gendarmerie Nationale, which in turn falls under the control of France's armed forces, and has been also deployed abroad.

The GIGN is a relatively small force that borrows elements from the FBI, police SWAT teams and U.S. military special ops, and it is highly respected, well-resourced and well-exercised, Sanderson said.

It also trains various Mideast police and security forces and has long been considered a Tier 1 hostage rescue force around the world, he said.

"People in America have this ridiculous notion that's always mentioned by comedians or politicians, that the French are weak, they like to surrender because of World War II, and the reality is that their level of training and attitude and disposition to these [militants] is much closer to the U.S., Israelis and the Russians than it is to what we would consider weaker countries." 

"I've often said they're closer to the Russian model than the U.S. model, as far as not a lot of questions are asked. They go in and kick down doors and they are very rough dudes."

But security forces can only provide so much protection. 

'As prepared as they can be'

"I think they are as prepared as they can be without putting a policeman behind each French citizen," said Stephanie Pezard, a RAND Corporation political scientist with a specialty in French policy. "There’s only so much you can do to prevent attacks that basically can come from everywhere. It's going to be mostly intelligence services that will have to make sure that everyone on their watch list is being watched."

Intelligence gathering for counterterrorism is the responsibility of the Central Directorate of Interior Intelligence (DCRI) which has come under scrutiny and criticism for its failure to pay closer attention to the three suspects in the recent attacks, as they were known to authorities.

Along with its intelligence gathering, France also deploys a national security alert system to indicate a potential threat level  — vigilance or attack alert (which was put in place following the Charlie Hebdo attacks).

At that heightened level, automatic measures come into place, which include deploying more military to support the police and at sites deemed sensitive, such as department stores, airports, train stations — any place with a lot of traffic, Pezard said.

After recent events, schools are being monitored as well as every synagogue.

But Moniquet said the biggest challenge is the sheer numbers of possible suspects living inside France, including those involved in Syria, former militants who want to fight again, and thousands of radicals and sympathizers. 

"So that makes something like 5,000 people which are suspect and could be dangerous and extremely dangerous. And there, very clearly, we are at the limit of the possibilities for the internal security and the intelligence."

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