By Tim Lister
Did French intelligence services miss vital clues as Mohammed Merah showed signs of growing radicalization? In the words of the French newspaper, L'Express, on Thursday: "Did the security services fail in their surveillance?"
How do western intelligence agencies choose who to focus on as terror suspects, amid hundreds that express or harbor militant views? Do they have sufficient resources; and where lies the balance between surveillance and the protection of civil liberties?
These are just a few of the questions emerging after Merah's killings.
Merah had been on the radar of the French intelligence service for several years. He'd been detained in Afghanistan in 2010 and repatriated to France - only to return to the Afghan-Pakistan border area in August of last year. He'd been interviewed by the French security services last November after returning from the Af-Pak area a second time. But he had apparently persuaded them, even showing photographs he had taken, that he had been on a tourist trip.
In addition, it has emerged that Merah was on a U.S. no-fly-list, according to U.S. officials, which would have prevented him from boarding any U.S.-bound flight.
There were also worrisome signs before he left for Afghanistan. Two years ago, Merah "held" a 15-year-old boy in his apartment and forced him to watch videos of al Qaeda beheadings. When confronted by his mother, he assaulted her - and she made a report to police. French media report that after the incident Merah donned military fatigues and yelled "I'm al Qaeda" in the street near the woman's house. By then, he already had multiple convictions for minor offenses, and several jail sentenceBoth he and his older brother Abdelkader were known to the security services because of their membership of a small Salafist group in Toulouse. French prosecutors say Abdelkader was implicated in a network sending Islamic militants to Iraq in 2007 but not charged because of inadequate evidence. He is currently under arrest but has not been charged.
But at the same time Merah did not fit any "conventional" profile of a jihadist-to-be. He was a motor-bike enthusiast and soccer player. According to his attorney, Christian Etelin, he was usually quiet and courteous - "not rigid to the point of falling into fanaticism." But Etelin said there were signs of a "dual personality" in Merah. Friends have told French reporters of their shock at his sudden metamorphosis to killer.
French Interior Minister Claude Geant defended the work of France's equivalent of the FBI, the Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur. The DCRI "follows a lot of people who are involved in Islamist radicalism," he said Thursday. "Expressing ideas, showing Salafist opinions is not enough to bring someone before justice," he said.
Nor had there been any "criminal tendencies" among Islamist radicals in Toulouse, which has a large population of North African origin, he said.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told a radio network Thursday that "light must be shed" on events leading up to the shootings by Merah. "I understand that one can ask whether there was a failing or not. As I don't know if there was a failing, I can't tell you what kind of failing, but light must be shed on that," Juppe said on Europe
One avenue of inquiry may be communication between different security agencies in France. For example the DCRI tracks French citizens who have returned from overseas travels; the role of the external spy service DGSE includes keeping tabs on foreigners in France suspected of links to extremism.
Other questions include the judicial authority needed for some forms of surveillance, although police in France can tap telephones with the approval of the Prime Minister and an administrative panel. There is also the issue of budget cuts at the DCRI over the past few years.
Whether and how the DCRI dropped the ball in Merah's case has already entered the bloodstream of the presidential race in France, with the candidate of the far-right National Front, Marine Le Pen, demanding an inquiry into whether the intelligence services took necessary precautions in Merah's case and complaining of the government's laxity in the face of the "fundamentalist risk."
Another candidate, François Bayrou, expressed surprise that Merah had been able to buy weapons without drawing attention, after so many convictions.
Read the rest of Tim Lister's report HERE