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The Paris Attack and the Terrorist Threat to Hospitals

Written By Prof. Boaz Ganor & Dr. Miri Halperin Wernli

On January 7, 2015, Said Kouachi and Cherif Kouachi (two brothers born and raised in France) entered the headquarters of the French satirical newspaper “Charlie Hebdo” and opened fire, killing twelve people and injuring eleven.

The profile and biography of the killers are currently being analyzed, but we now know that they met with Farid Benyettou in early 2000. He quickly became their mentor. Farid Benyettou (like Cherif Kouachi) was a member of the Paris 19th Arrondissement cell (AKA the Buttes-Chaumont Cell) and preached in the Adda’wa Mosque in Paris. His radical sermons led the French intelligence to begin monitoring him in early 2000. As a leader of the 19th Arrondissement Cell, he sent his followers into combat in Iraq. In 2005, Benyettou and Cherif Kouachi were arrested and in 2008 they were sentenced to six years in prison.

The French newspaper “Le Parisien” wrote that Benyettou was released from jail in 2011 and started attending nursing school. He then began to work at the Emergency Services of one of the main hospitals in Paris, Pitié-Salpêtrière, where some of the injured of the latest terrorist attacks in Paris were brought.  However, he did not work at the hospital on that specific day of the attack.

According to “Le Parisien” Véronique Marin la Meslée, director of training at Pitié-Salpêtrière, explained that she discovered Benyettou’s past by watching a documentary on Jihadism in France in March 2012. She then informed the police who told her that they knew the individual and asked to be updated of any suspicious behavior. Martin Hirsch, the director of the hospital explained that in order to start nursing school, there are no required security and background checks and no psychological or personality screenings.

This event clearly highlights many questions in reference to terrorist threats to hospitals in general, and the recruitment procedures of hospitals in particular. Among these questions:

  • Why does an Islamic radical and ex-convict who is closely linked to terrorism for decades decide to work as a nurse in a hospital? Is it because he suddenly experienced feelings of compassion towards the “infidels”?
  • How can a hospital recruit an ex-convict without getting security clearance from the police?
  • If the police knew Benyettou and his background, why didn’t they warn the hospital proactively?
  • What is the meaning of the police request to report “suspicious behaviors” of Benyettou? What were they after?
  • What would be regarded as a suspicious behavior with the exception of coming to work with an AK-47?    
  • More generally, are the management of hospitals in Europe and in the rest of the world aware of the threat of potential terrorist infiltration into their facility – whether in order to get hold of hazardous material and knowledge or to prepare a possible attack against the hospital?
  • Shouldn’t the security authorities in any respective state refer to Hospitals as “critical infrastructure” and monitor the employment procedures and behavior of the hospitals’ employees? Or at least key employees if such a category can be defined? 

Approximately 100 terrorist attacks have been perpetrated at hospitals worldwide, in 43 countries on every continent, killing approximately 775 people and wounding 1,217 others. Hospitals are prime targets for several reasons:

The large number of patients, visitors and medical staff in a confided and restricted area all but ensure that an attack on a hospital will produce multiple casualties.

The perversity of targeting a location that is dedicated to health and healing, may be expected to receive extensive media coverage.

Hospitals serve entire populations, an attack on a hospital is more anxiety-provoking than an attack on almost any other site, because of what is known as “personalization of the attack”.

Hospitals also house materials, equipment and very specific knowledge and expertise that could easily be put to hazardous use – such as chemical and biological substances, various types of medications and specialized equipment. (For further information please read “Terrorist Attacks against Hospitals: Case Studies”. Please click here to access the article.)

Recent events show us that there is an urgent need for aggressive reform in hospital security management, particularly related to screening, monitoring, and following up on employees. Systematic background and security checks should be done on every hospital personal as well as on the students that are interning in such critical and sensitive institutions.