The tip from Spain was only a vague warning. But it was enough for France's domestic intelligence agents to go to work, tapping phones, tailing suspects and squeezing informants. Before long, they rolled up a group of Muslim men in a provincial French town who, beneath a tranquil surface, were drawing up Al-Qaeda-inspired plans to set off a bomb in the Paris subway.
The plot was one of 15 planned terrorist attacks by jihadist cells in France that have been thwarted in recent years, according to a count by the Central Directorate of Internal Intelligence, France's main antiterrorism force.
The antiterrorism policing has been conducted for the most part in the dark, and in a style that sets France and other European countries apart from the US. As US officials seek to understand what may have led a Pakistani immigrant to try to blow up Times Square, and how he boarded an airplane at John F. Kennedy International Airport despite multiple computerised watch lists, Europe's specialists have pointed to their own approach as an example of how to proceed.
"You have got to be proactive," said Jean-Louis Bruguiere, who as an investigating magistrate handled many of France's major antiterrorism cases.
Police in some U.S. cities have sophisticated programmes to engage with communities and infiltrate potentially dangerous groups. But Lee Hamilton, who co-chaired the 9/11 Commission, said U.S. human intelligence efforts must be "greatly expanded and refined" to tackle the increasing threat of homegrown terrorism.
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