Make no mistake: France was not and is not unprepared for the kind of attacks it saw on Friday night. It has a highly effective intelligence service and anti-terror forces.
I served with the French counter-terrorist Police RAID – Reaction, Action, Intervention and Dissuasion – when I was an SAS troop commander. I have served alongside the French paramilitary special forces, Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale (GIGN), in many parts of the world. They are among the most effective anti-terror forces in Europe, if not the world.
Right now, the major difference between our two countries is luck.
Notwithstanding their security arrangements, France will be stunned after such an attack. The authorities will be looking almost immediately at what can be done to stop the next one.
First, there will be a flurry of raids – suspects rounded up on an industrial scale, as France comes to terms, finally, with the extent of the radicalisation of Muslims living in France and the sheer number of Muslims from France’s immigrant communities who went to fight for Islamic State and have now returned.
Disturbingly, on the ground in Syria French nationals represent the largest European contingent, closely followed by the Belgians and then Germans and Danes.
Of course, although I talk about French, Germans and Danes, there are only a handful of ethnic Europeans among them. The vast majority of these fighters are of North African origin, most from Tunisia.
And this is where the risk escalates: these individuals have enormous and unfathomable support networks in Europe and are able to slip in and out of the continent fairly easily.
This is one significant difference for the UK. The British nationals fighting for Isil are firmly rooted in the Pakistani and (to a lesser extent) Bangladeshi communities in this country. Due to the nature of our borders and the co-operation of our ethnic minority communities, who oppose the radicals, subversives are much more easily tracked.
But that is not to say that individuals from these communities have not travelled out to fight for Isil and returned. They have, they’re here now – and they want to attack.
The very first thing that the UK’s Cabinet Office Briefing Room crisis committee (Cobra) will have considered: is there an up-to-date and advanced plan for responding to a similar event here?
Exercises carried out in London in June would suggest so. And that is a good thing, because there is a burning desire to attack within the subversive elements based among the various British Muslim communities. The next two questions for Cobra would be: is there an immediate organised threat, and secondly what opportunities are available for a high-profile “lone wolf” improvised attack, which is much harder to detect and foil?
Where the subversive elements in Europe have an advantage over militant Muslims here is the availability of weapons – especially in France. Organised criminal gangs in most of the Western European nations are dominated by groups with Balkan origins. They have access to vast stockpiles of weapons from the wars in the Former Yugoslavia and well-established trafficking networks.
Here in the UK, where the Albanian gangs dominate, access to automatic weapons is more difficult and more costly. But not impossible.
Cobra will be considering the “onion skins” of our protection, that is to say defence at potential targets; defence nationally; collective international defence; defeating the threat of Isil specifically on the ground in Syria; and finally co-ordinating intelligence with allies to prevent attacks.
In particular, the UK will be looking to share intelligence with the French and Nato allies, but our surest means will be exchanging intelligence with the Saudis, Jordanians and UAE, who are our most certain intelligence allies.The Saudis are crucial to the UK, with estimates from some quarters assessing that 80 per cent of attacks aimed at the UK specifically in the last five years have been thwarted thanks to the Saudi General Intelligence Presidency (GIP).
So for now, it is a matter of wait and see. We must trust our luck. Crucially, we must be supportive of the French when they take measures within their immigrant communities to protect their citizens from the subversive idealism which would cause so much violence.
Col Tim Collins OBE is a former SAS officer who commanded the 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Regiment during the invasion of Iraq. He is a specialist in the field of counterinsurgency and security