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French media lead inquisition into Toulouse killing spree
The murderous rampage that ended with the dramatic death of Islamist gunman Mohamed Merah on Thursday has prompted a bout of soul-searching in France, where the media are leading the quest for answers.
A day after the siege of Toulouse gunman Mohamed Merah came to a dramatic and violent end, the front page of French newspaper Libération presented a list of seven questions it wanted answered.
The left-wing daily summed up the mood in the French media in the aftermath of the 32-hour stand-off between the self-proclaimed Islamist extremist and police commandos.
The inquisition into events which ended with 23-year-old Merah being shot in the head as he launched himself over his balcony wall gun in hand has begun in earnest and recriminations are coming thick and fast.
Top of the agenda for the French press on Friday was the tactics used by the elite police commandos from the aptly named RAID division, during the 32-hour siege.
'No tactical plan'
Paris prosecutor and chief investigator Francois Molins told the media shortly after the end of the siege that “everything had been done to take Merah alive”.
But that statement was ridiculed by Christian Prouteau, founder of Groupement d'intervention de la gendarmerie nationale (GIGN), a special elite operations unit of the military.
“How did the best police unit not manage to take one man?” Prouteau asked in an interview with the regional paper Ouest France, and which was widely picked up by other publications.
“They should have used tear gas, it would have taken no longer than five minutes,” added the former soldier. “Instead they just tossed in a load of grenades which pushed the gunman into a state of mind to continue his war. It seems the operation was conducted without a specific tactical plan. That was the problem.”
Libération focused instead on the start of the stand-off and the first failed attempt to take Merah alive at 3am on Wednesday morning.
When officers smashed through the door of his apartment, Merah was armed and waiting. He opened fire, leaving two commandoes wounded, and forced the RAID team to retreat for the next 32 hours.
Liberation questioned whether Merah could have been snared in a trap before he realised police were onto him.
“The killer did not know the police had tracked him down. They should have put three of our guys in the apartment block concealed near his door and waited for him to leave,” a police source told Libération.
While the French public are asking whether Merah should have been identified earlier in his killing spree, the media are focusing on the time before Merah had fired his first bullet in anger on March 11.
The role of France’s intelligence services are firmly in the spotlight after it emerged Merah had been under surveillance since 2011 and even questioned by agents after returning from a trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the same year.
According to Claude Gueant, Merah told secret service agents he had been to the war-torn zone and the home of terrorist training camps on a “tourist visit”.
The headline “Questions about the surveillance of Mohamed Merah” in centre-left daily Le Monde was a theme echoed throughout the French media on Friday.
Le Monde noted that Merah had been portrayed by the authorities as “a lone wolf”, which a source in the intelligence services said presents “the most difficult exercise for us”.
Le Monde accepted that answer as “credible”. However the paper noted that revelations that Merah’s brother’s name showed up during a police investigation into a group who were encouraging jihadists to go and fight in Iraq could “undermine” the official explanation.
In his blog on RTL website, Christopher Giltay sums up the mood in France when he says “There needs to be a serious debriefing at the top of the secret services.”
Islamic threat underestimated?
After the events in Toulouse, France is now more familiar with the term "home-grown terrorist". The fact that Merah was born and brought up in Toulouse before turning on his community has shaken France to the core, just as Britain was left traumatized by its own home-grown terrorists in the London bombings of July 2007.
With France being home to around 6 million Muslims - Western Europe’s largest Muslim population - the country’s press is also wondering whether towns and suburbs across the country could be home to more Mohamed Merahs?
“That question needs to be put forward to the intelligence services,” said Sara Daniel, a reporter for the weekly news magazine Nouvel Observateur and a specialist on Islamic extremism, in an interview with 20minutes.
“I am surprised that this has not happened before now,” she added. "There are groups of people who are against the West and the Jewish community and against France, after the stories about the [banning of] the veil in 2004. It’s surprising that we have had so few extremists in France.”
The fallout from Mohammed Merah’s murderous acts in Toulouse has naturally spread beyond France’s borders.
The eyes of the world’s media have been focused on southwestern France in recent days, as the drama reached its violent end Thursday, and commentators in the international media have been asking the same questions as their French counterparts.
Top-selling Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot included a scathing opinion piece by former special forces officer Lior Lotan under the title “Operation Failure”.
“The French security forces failed in their mission,” he wrote.
Writing in British daily The Independent, Adrian Hamilton chastised politicians and experts as “obscene” for focusing on the impact Mohamed Merah will now have on the upcoming presidential elections in France.
Despite labelling France a “deeply racist country”, Hamilton believes the national enquiry being played through the French press and beyond should keep the deadly events of Toulouse in context.
“There is far too much talk about grander themes of race relations, ethnic differences and religious motivations, and far too little acceptance of the simple fact that these cases are uncommon, they have always occurred through history and society's best defence remains good policing, not draconian legislation,” he said.