What’s in a suspect terrorist name? Chérif Kouachi, Saïd Kouachi and Mourad Hamyd.

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A year and half ago, terrorism stroke Boston and there was a confusion about the origin of the terrorists, the Tsarnaev brothers. Czech Republic? The Russians hitting on US soil? Not quite. Yesterday, terrorism stroke Paris and the same confusion exists: are the suspect terrorists from Chechnya, from Syria, from Egypt, from France?

Two of them have French nationality, yet their names reflect a north-African origin.

Can applied onomastics help in a manhunt? Not likely. But it can help in preventing such events from occurring, months in advance.

Applied onomastics, the science of proper names, have been used before by security agencies: LAS software (acquired by IBM) was helping the CIA in the 80’s to keep tab on the KGB, recognizing Slavic names in databases; after 9-11, a lot of attention was directed towards improving name matching to reduce false positives in terrorist watch lists.

Is it ethical to mine personal names to analyze global terrorism trends, or to target individual people as potential terrorists? Firstly, it’s two different things. Secondly, we have to consider what’s at stake here.

Being French myself, I remember as a kid watching Cabu on TV in Dorothée’s Récré A2 show. This man entertained me as a kid, made me think as an adult with his provocative caricatures. He has been killed along with his friends and colleagues. In addition, a symbol was badly injured: Charlie Hebdo was symbolic of the Freedom of the Press in France. It is a free thinking and highly provocative newspaper – which just couldn’t exist in many countries that don’t have the same tradition of ‘laïcité’ (separation between the Churches and the State). The stakes are high: it’s not just the French, the very heart of France was targeted by the terrorists.

Two French police officers have also been brutally murdered, doing their duty. Again their name tells a moving story, Franck Brinsolaro and Ahmed Merabet. Anyone can be a victim of terrorism.

Protecting France, the French people of all origins as well as the visitors of France requires collecting and processing intelligence. Understanding the sociology of criminal networks is critical and can be the difference between life and death. Even more so when France is involved in military operations abroad – all having ethnic or religious components (Mali, Libya, Syria…)

Nationality (and hence indirectly possibly race, ethnicity or religion) can play a specific role in decision making, in the context of asylum, immigration, customs, general policing, including counter-terrorism. The distinction between the language ‘discriminatory ethnic profiling’ rather than the more common ‘ethnic profiling’ to describe the practice of basing law enforcement decisions solely or mainly on an individual’s race, ethnicity or religion demonstrates the European Union recognition for the security forces need to understand and recognize the complexity of the relationships that exist between nationality, geography, and more subjective concepts such as: ethnic origins, cultural backgrounds, civilizations, religions.
Citation: (2007) 1133-Guide-ethnic-profiling_EN : Towards More Effective Policing, a guide by the European Union.

It doesn’t mean onomastics should be used as a tool to target migrants (the ‘délit de sale geule’). We must defend our values, not reny them. In fact, a great danger comes from people newly converted to Islam, going to fight in Syria or elsewhere. Gilles Le Guen, originally a sailor from Brittany, went to fight in Mali under the name of Abdel Jelil ( عبد الجليل ). Recognizing names from Brittany closely related to a network of names in Arabic (or conversely) themselves closely related to terrorist groups should definitely ring bells.

There is a strong concern about the security of the French Jewish people too.

So far, the French security forces have been reluctant to use advanced data mining techniques and ‘digint’ and prefer to rely on their excellent capabilities in ‘humint’ (infiltration of terrorist groups). There are reasons for that. It’s not a matter of technical capability.

  1. The French constitution states: France is ‘one and undividable’ (« La France est une République indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale »). This lead to the following interpretation: the French state should remain colour blind, not see the internal sociology of France. As a consequence, there are very few statistical tools available to measure –for example- the level of discrimination towards migrants in France (including second generation), or to measure to which extend different populations have equal access to public services, or to evaluate the security risk specific to certain populations.
  2. Lost digital sovereignty: France (and Europe as whole) is struggling to build up its digital sector. In “Big Data”, France has good tech but doesn’t have the Data. The main French Internet companies are either a former state monopoly (SNCF -the train company- is the leader in digital commerce; PagesJaunes, the main competitor of Google in digital advertising for companies, is formerly a France Télécom division), in serious trouble (Viadeo) or on the path to be acquired by a US company – with few exceptions (controversial Illiad, …) The current situation is intolerable for France: not only the GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) make huge benefits and don’t pay much tax, but they don’t employ many people in France and they know more about France that the French statistics agency (INSEE). So, France has to rely on cooperation with foreign security agencies (mainly US) to obtain vital information in matters of Police or national security. The French government is trying to get leverage by heading the fight against the GAFA on Data Protection and Tax at the EU level, which has lead to the French Data Protection agency to gain a huge power: the CNIL is feared by all French police and intelligence agencies where it has career ending powers.

It will take courage and efforts in France to change political views on this, but it’s essential both to build a sustainable digital ecosystem as well as to overcome France deep identity crisis. France has a huge potential: it has strong universities in social sciences, excellent engineers as well as mathematicians, it can still attract talents from many countries. But security is of the essence: no world class scientist will go to work in Saclay –the scientific and high-tech cluster to be built South of Paris- if they don’t feel safe commuting in the suburban train or in the city. This security must be granted to all: French of all origins, French Jews, migrants, tourists… In the 21st century, that will require to combine human intelligence and automated intelligence – Humin and Digint.


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