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8 lessons from the 2015 Paris terror attacks

Simultaneous terrorist attacks are today’s reality, planning and training your police department for an effective response will save lives


France was rocked by multiple, high-visibility terrorist attacks in 2015. The Charlie Hebdo attack on Jan. 7, 2015, followed two days later by an attack and hostage situation (conducted by an associate of the Charlie Hebdo attackers) at a kosher deli in Paris.

Later, on Nov. 13, 2015, a symphonic attack was launched against multiple targets by independently operating teams. These near-simultaneous attacks included multiple suicide bombings outside a soccer stadium in Saint-Denis, multiple shootings by mobile teams within Paris and the gruesome attack and hostage situation at the Bataclan Theatre in Paris during a rock concert.

These intense attacks challenged French law enforcement and resulted in many lessons learned that were recently shared with American law enforcement at the National Tactical Officers Association annual conference in Louisville, Kentucky in August. Here are eight of the most notable lessons from that debrief.

A member of the Research and Intervention Brigades (BRI) controls a drone during a terror attack exercise at the Gare Montparnasse railway station in Paris, Wednesday, April 20, 2016. (Miguel Medina, Pool Photo via AP)
A member of the Research and Intervention Brigades (BRI) controls a drone during a terror attack exercise at the Gare Montparnasse railway station in Paris, Wednesday, April 20, 2016. (Miguel Medina, Pool Photo via AP)

1. Importance of joint training
The Jan. 9, 2015, operation at the kosher deli was the first time the three major tactical teams in France had worked together. The Intervention Brigade and the Search, Assistance, Intervention, Deterrence (RAID) teams responded to the hostage crisis at the kosher deli in east Paris, while coordinating with the National Gendarmerie Intervention Group team, which had cornered the Charlie Hebdo terrorists 22 miles northeast of Paris, in Dammartin-en-Goele.

Because the two operations had the potential to influence each other (i.e., a National Gendarmerie Intervention Group assault on the barricaded Charlie Hebdo terrorists could prompt the execution of hostages at the deli), close coordination was required between the three French teams. Although each of the missions ended successfully, difficulties arose that highlighted the need for the teams to train and work together more frequently.

2. Impact of target hardening
The terrorist bombers encountered tight security at the stadium in Saint-Denis and could not approach the entrances without the likelihood of being detected. As a result, they detonated their bombs outside the stadium, as far as a block away, where they caused fewer casualties.

This was a win for the stadium security team, but it also demonstrated how hardening a target may not prevent an attack. It may merely deflect it onto a softer target. This scenario reveals the need for increased patrols and undercover surveillance in areas that surround the outer perimeter of a high-value, hardened target to detect thwarted attackers who are looking for new targets of opportunity.

3. Reconnaissance and pre-incident planning
When terrorists barricaded themselves in the Bataclan Theatre with hostages, a rescue attempt had to be planned. The requested blueprints for the building were too complex to be useful and a simpler floor plan was required to hastily plan the operation.

Neither set of documents revealed a step in the floor that later caused the mobile shield, used by the Intervention Brigade assault team, to fall down shortly after breaching the door. Fortunately, this did not happen until after the shield had stopped 25 rounds of automatic 7.62x39 mm rifle fire.

Unanticipated challenges can never be eliminated. The event demonstrates the value of reconnaissance walk-throughs of high-value target areas prior to potential attacks. Tactical teams need to learn the architecture and floor plans of likely targets in their area of operation and train in these locations to enhance familiarity.

4. Use of protective shields
The French tactical teams have a culture of ballistic shield use and used them to good effect in the January and November operations. Besides protecting the teams from gunfire, the shields proved useful in establishing a protective barrier for innocents when IEDs had to be disarmed in position. American teams without this capability should consider its merits.

5. Integrated EOD
The French teams had access to EOD specialists but lacked an integrated EOD capability before the January 2015 attacks. Placing EOD expertise on the assault team was a critical to the success of the Bataclan operation.

The EOD personnel quickly deactivated unexploded bomb vests on downed terrorists, reducing the risk to police and the civilians who were being evacuated. The EOD specialists were required to check hostages for IEDs before they exited the scene and sweep the building for planted or discarded devices so the scene could be secured.

6. Integrated EMS
The French teams also had an integrated tactical medic, which proved invaluable during the Bataclan operation. Interestingly, the French Intervention Brigade team experienced a phenomenon that would later be shared by the San Bernardino Police SWAT team during its own terror attack, just a few weeks later — the tactical medic immediately became detached from the team upon entry. 

Because EMS couldn't enter until the scenes were secured, the tactical medics in both situations were immediately stripped away to triage the victims by themselves and were no longer available to assist the teams. This has significant implications for tactical teams that incorporate medics. The addition of a tactical medic does not relieve other team members of their responsibility to carry trauma medicine essentials as part of their kit and to know essential combat first aid skills.

7. Social and news media challenges
The French teams gained valuable intelligence from hostages who used social media sites during the kosher deli siege. Unfortunately, the news media was careless in some circumstances and broadcasted elements (such as hidden hostage locations) that could have had highly negative consequences.

The live broadcasting of the kosher deli and Dammartin-en-Goele assaults provided valuable information for the terrorists, who only had to turn on a television to see the location, strength, equipment and activities of the tactical teams on scene. When the assault on the barricaded Hebdo attackers was launched, it necessarily advanced the timetable of the kosher deli assault, as the terrorist had promised retaliatory hostage executions. Controlling media access is difficult in a free society, but it doesn't eliminate the need for teams to consider the potential tactical effects of such coverage.

8. Emotional hazards for officers
The massive number of casualties at the Bataclan Theatre was a difficult emotional obstacle for team members to overcome. Officers had to move across piles of bodies to advance on the terrorists and could not stop to aid wounded and frightened civilians pleading for assistance until they had eliminated the terrorist threat.

The carnage and distress created an emotional burden for officers that was difficult to properly address in the days and weeks after the attack because the operational tempo never abated for key personnel. Overtasked officers worked extended hours conducting investigations, searches and raids, with no time for proper debriefing, counseling and rest. This experience should serve as a warning for American agencies to look at whether or not their staffing is robust enough to allow for recovery following a high-profile incident.

Agencies need to consider multiple teams and mutual aid agreements. In addition, critical incident stress management protocols must be in place to help affected personnel and agencies must assess whether there are sufficient numbers of officers trained as peer counselors, to assist fellow officers who might hesitate to discuss concerns with unfamiliar medical professionals.

Our French counterparts who shared this hard-earned knowledge at the NTOA conference did so because they understand that we're all allies in the same fight and face the same enemy. We owe them our thanks and respect for their professionalism, courage and heroism in the face of these deadly attacks and should make use of the learning opportunity they have provided.

Merci beaucoup.

For more information on NTOA and the 2017 Tactical Conference in Phoenix, visit www.NTOA.org.

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