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Slow response in Bataclan may have cost lives, says defense expert

Nearly three hours passed before police entered the music venue; that’s far too long, according to one counterterrorism specialist

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

A victim under a blanket outside the Bataclan theater in Paris, Friday November 13, 2015. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
A victim under a blanket outside the Bataclan theater in Paris, Friday November 13, 2015. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

It took 160 minutes — nearly three hours — for French police to enter Le Bataclan Theater in Paris after terrorists began slaughtering the concertgoers inside on Friday night.

That was simply too long, according to Avi Kapon, the former head of the IDF’s counterterrorism academy. The key to counterterrorism is a rapid, determined response, something that did not happen in the Bataclan massacre, he says.

Just after 9:30 p.m. on Friday night, three terrorists left their car and entered the theater armed with automatic rifles and explosive vests. Over the din of the music, the trio opened fire on concert-goers. While some of the crowd escaped the carnage through windows and a rooftop exit, others were mown down by the attackers’ Kalashnikovs. Some also hid among the deceased.

At 12:20 a.m., two hours and 40 minutes later, French police finally entered the building. When they did, two of the terrorists detonated their explosive vests; police officers shot and killed the third.

Eighty-nine people died in the theater and dozens more were critically wounded.

Rescuers evacuate an injured person near the Bataclan concert hall in central Paris, early on November 14, 2015. (AFP PHOTO/MIGUEL MEDINA)
Rescuers evacuate an injured person near the Bataclan concert hall in central Paris, early on November 14, 2015. (AFP PHOTO/MIGUEL MEDINA)

A thorough investigation of the incident has yet to be completed or at least released.

But videos from the scene and the fact of that two hour and forty minute gap point to a slow, uncoordinated police reaction.

“The whole idea is to respond immediately,” Kapon told The Times of Israel on Monday.

In videos from the scene, you can see police officers in full battle gear standing outside the venue while people inside are being killed, said Kapon, who now runs a private security company, Kapon Defense.

“That is contrary to the Israeli concepts of security and warfare. The Israeli idea is, when innocent people are being killed, you as a soldier have to put yourself in harm’s way. You can’t hide,” he said.

‘The whole idea is to respond immediately’

In his criticism of the French response, Kapon made reference to the terror attacks in Mumbai in 2008 and in the Westgate mall in Nairobi in 2013. In both of those cases, he said, the under-trained forces only added to the confusion and chaos of the attack.

SWAT teams arriving on the scene need to first accurately evaluate the situation in order to carry out the appropriate response, he explained.

“Every second where civilians are the ones that deal with terrorist fire instead of the security forces will result in additional deaths,” Kapon wrote for the Israel Defense website in response to the Westgate attack.

In the aftermath of the Bataclan bloodbath, some have questioned whether the delayed response was a result of police mistaking the massacre in the theater for a hostage situation. Kapon not only dismissed this explanation, but said if that were the case, it was “even worse… if [terrorists] have already killed almost a hundred people, and [police] still think it’s a hostage situation.”

A woman is being evacuated from the Bataclan theater after a shooting in Paris, Friday November 13, 2015. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)
A woman is being evacuated from the Bataclan theater after a shooting in Paris, Friday November 13, 2015. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

Though it is easy to pass judgment after the fact, the testimonies from the scene make it clear to even an untrained eye that the attack on the Bataclan Theater was not a hostage situation but a slaughter.

“It was shameful,” Kapon, who ran the IDF’s counterterrorism school for six years, said.

The counterterrorism expert recognized that only a short time had passed and apologized for sounding harsh, but he stood by his assessment.

“If someone in an operational organization thinks that 100 people get killed, and it’s still a hostage situation, they should probably look for another profession. I don’t know, knitting sweaters or something,” Kapon said.

Israeli rescue teams, considered some of the best in the world, operate strictly according to the principle of rapid response. Upon arriving at the scene, troops use overwhelming force and lightning speed to end the situation as quickly as possible. The longer attackers are alone with civilians, the more deaths there will be, Kapon explained.

An IDF counterterrorism unit trains in neutralizing terrorists who have taken control of a building. (IDF Spokesperson)
An IDF counterterrorism unit trains in neutralizing terrorists who have taken control of a building. (IDF Spokesperson)

Perhaps one of the best examples of this is the Sabena hijacking in 1972, in which Palestinian terrorists took over an airplane holding Israeli passengers. An elite Sayeret Matkal team, which included Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, took control of the plane in under 60 seconds.

Though some tactics have changed since 1972, the basics have not. Israeli forces in both training exercises and in the field move cautiously but quickly onto the scene “like a wall of long-restrained water,” as Mitch Ginsburg reported earlier this year in The Times of Israel.

While Israel’s tactics are considered some of the most advanced in the world, Israeli rescue teams have also suffered their fair share of failures, notably a botched attempt to rescue the kidnapped Sgt. Nachshon Wachsman in 1994. Wachsman was killed by his Hamas captors when the Sayaret Matkal team struggled to enter the building, as their inadequate explosives failed to blow through a solid-steel door.

French security forces also faced criticism for their response in January’s attack on the Hyper Cacher market in Paris, in which four French Jews were killed, for an awkward attempt to burst into the kosher store. Several people, including two police officers, were injured in the rescue operation.

“It was something of a disgrace,” Kapon said.

While Netanyahu has promised to provide the French government with as much intelligence support as Israel can comfortably give, increased cooperation in the fields of operational tactics and training may be in order as well.

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