Spotlight on French security ‘failures’


FRENCH intelligence agencies have come under attack following revelations that the Toulouse killer trained by al-Qaeda had been on a US no-fly list and had a brother linked to a group that sent fighters to a jihadi network in Iraq.
Mohammed Merah, who was killed while firing a barrage of bullets at police, was also reported to have forced a teenager to watch videos of al-Qaeda hostage beheadings. The boy’s mother said that when she filed a legal complaint, Merah attacked her with a sword, putting her in hospital for several days. She insisted that police took no action.
Merah, a 23-year-old petty criminal, killed four people at a Jewish school this week after killing three soldiers the week before. His rampages are expected to have a powerful impact on the French presidential election due in five weeks, with issues of race and immigration already on the agenda.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has promised tough new laws against watching atrocity videos and travelling overseas for terror training or indoctrination.
“These crimes were not the work of a madman,” he said. “A madman is irresponsible. These crimes were the work of a fanatic and a monster.”
Prime Minister Francois Fillon said yesterday Merah “seems to have acted alone”. Police continued to hold his mother, brother and brother’s girlfriend.
The European Union’s top anti-terrorism expert estimated Europe had about 400 lone-wolf extremists trained by al-Qaeda. Most were in “Germany, France, Britain; maybe also Belgium, and in all other EU countries to a much lesser extent”, EU counterterrorism co-ordinator Gilles de Kerchove said. He said lone operators had become more common because al-Qaeda’s structures in Europe had been weakened over the past four years.
A spokesman for Socialist presidential candidate Francois Hollande accused authorities of having failed in their surveillance of Merah. “In the United States, a commission of inquiry would have been set up without any question to see if there is a problem,” said Bruno Le Roux. “Expressing ideas is not enough to bring someone before justice.”
Socialist MP Jean-Pierre Chevenement, a former defence and interior minister, said the killings were a warning for services in charge of anti-terrorism and questioned whether Merah could have acted alone: “Too many arms, too many trips, too much money.”
An al-Qaeda-linked group called Jund al-Khilafah claimed responsibility for Merah’s attacks, saying its “Islamic warrior” had taken revenge for French hostility to Muslims and that Israel’s “crimes will not go unpunished”.
French officials said they had no reason to focus on him because he had never been known to have links with a violent Islamic group, nor were his trips to Afghanistan or Pakistan with an Islamic network. “He managed to get there on his own,” said Francois Molins, chief prosecutor in Paris. “He is not typical.”
Interior Minister Claude Gueant said Merah had been watched for several years but had never shown signs of preparing criminal acts.
But as recently as November Merah had been questioned by the French Central Directorate of Interior Intelligence. He told it he had been a tourist when he was arrested by Afghan police in 2010 in Kandahar. French authorities had also alerted Spain when Merah was planning to go to the Costa Brava to meet Islamist activists.
Authorities believe Merah and his brother Abdelkader, who was arrested on Wednesday, were involved with an Islamist organisation known as the Toulouse group, which brought together young fundamentalists of North African descent. It had the stated aim of targeting US interests in France and sending recruits to Iraq.
A source familiar with the US “no-fly list” told Reuters that security officials would have had to assess Merah as being capable of bringing down a plane in flight in order to include him.
Le Monde reported that Merah had trained and fought in the Afghan-Pakistan border with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and that he might have visited Syria, Iraq and Jordan. He is thought to be one of about 150 Islamists who have left Western Europe to fight in Afghanistan over the past five years.
Merah’s indoctrination is believed to have begun during an 18-month stint in jail, where he tried to commit suicide and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital.

First published in The Age.