Officials Picked Up ‘Chatter’ on France Assault, Then Were Blocked by Encryption

PARIS (Los Angeles Times/TNS) -
French President Francois Hollande arrives to deliver a speech at a special congress of the joint upper and lower houses of parliament, the National Assembly and the Senate, at the Palace of Versailles, near Paris, France, Monday. (REUTERS/Michel Euler/Pool)
French President Francois Hollande arrives to deliver a speech at a special congress of the joint upper and lower houses of parliament, the National Assembly and the Senate, at the Palace of Versailles, near Paris, France, Monday. (REUTERS/Michel Euler/Pool)

Intelligence officials in Europe and the U.S. were picking up “chatter” as early as September about a potential Islamic State-related attack on France but lost the ability to track the exchanges when the terrorists switched to encrypted communications, an American law enforcement official said Monday.

The discussions flowed from Islamic State leaders in Syria to recipients in Europe, apparently including the Brussels-based terror cell French authorities now believe carried out Friday’s attacks in Paris, said the official, who requested anonymity because of the delicacy of the investigation into the coordinated shootings and bombings that killed 129 people and wounded hundreds more.

But no specific time or place for an assault was mentioned, and the threat sounded similar to other signals picked up by European and American authorities, the official said.

And then the line went silent, because the terrorist switched in September from open communication sources to so-called PS4 embedded devices — such as Sony PlayStation 4 equipment — that use encryption and block authorities from tapping them, the official said.

“The French were trying to find out anything more about the chatter, and they got behind it,” the official said. “But it went bad.”

The revelation of intelligence that pointed to a possible attack came on a day of intensive police operations in Belgium and France to hunt down a fugitive suspected of involvement in last week’s strike and to clamp down on dozens of other alleged extremists.

Also on Monday, French President Francois Hollande told his compatriots that France was now “at war” with Islamic State.

In a rare address to both chambers of the French legislature, Hollande said he would seek to extend France’s declared state of emergency, under which police can exercise broad powers, by three months.

He asked lawmakers to amend the constitution to give the president more power when the country is faced with an immediate, serious threat, and to allow the government to strip French citizenship from people with dual nationality who are convicted of terrorism or “threatening the nation’s interests.”

Hollande called for a special meeting of the United Nations Security Council and called Friday’s attacks “acts of war [that] were decided and planned in Syria. They were organized in Belgium and perpetrated on our soil with French complicity.”

Meanwhile, in Brussels, armed officers in balaclavas shut down part of the Molenbeek St. Jean district in an attempt to find Salah Abdeslam, 26, identified Sunday by France as a prime suspect in the shootings and bombings in Paris.

Eric van der Sypt, a spokesman for the Belgian federal prosecutor’s office, said the operation didn’t yield any arrests but confirmed that its aim was to find Abdeslam.

In France, police fanned out across the country overnight and raided 168 locations, using powers granted under the government-declared state of emergency. Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said 104 people had been placed under house arrest.

France observed a minute of silence at noon Monday, the second time in less than a year that the country has stopped to commemorate victims of a lethal terrorist attack in Paris. The first was in January, after the killing of 20 people at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, a kosher supermarket and other sites.