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France ‘botched’ Toulouse gunman investigation

French authorities on Tuesday made public a scathing report of the country’s domestic intelligence agency, criticising its investigation into the man behind the Toulouse shootings, Mohamed Merah, as a series of failures.

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French authorities unveiled a scathing report of the country’s domestic intelligence agency on Tuesday, which describes its investigation into Toulouse gunman Mohamed Merah as an operation flawed from beginning to end.

The damning report mainly highlighted a lack of coordination and communication within France’s domestic intelligence agency, the DCRI, in its handling of Merah. A young man with a turbulent past, Merah had at least 15 previous criminal convictions, and had gotten into trouble in June, 2010 after he attacked a neighbour who had confronted him for showing her son an online jihadist video of a decapitation.

A self-styled jihadist, Merah went on to kill a total of seven people, including a rabbi, three school children and three soldiers, in the southern French cities of Toulouse and Montauban during a shooting spree in March of this year. Police eventually cornered Merah at his home in Toulouse on March 22, where he died in a hail of bullets after opening fire on security forces as they stormed his apartment.

How did in happen?

The tragic shootings shocked much of France, raising questions over how Merah, a man with a criminal past and connections to both Afghanistan and Pakistan, had slipped through the DCRI’s fingers. On July 30, the country’s then-newly appointed interior minister, Manuel Valls, demanded an investigation into the whole affair.

Now, nearly three months later, France’s police disciplinary unit, the IGPN, has produced a 17-page document describing the case’s numerous failings, many of which were the product of a disjointed and dysfunctional intelligence system.

“Light has been shed on several objective failures,” the report read. “Objective because [these failures] go beyond the simple scope of human error, rather, they consist of a conjunction of omissions, faulty judgment, management problems, poor organisation of services and ever-present divisions between intelligence, police and public safety.”

The damning report went on to identify six main areas where France’s intelligence operations could be improved, including “reinforcement of detection, surveillance and investigation tools” and “better inter-service coordination”.

A mishandled affair

Merah first created ripples within the intelligence community in 2006, but was then more or less forgotten by the French authorities.

Merah didn’t fully resurface on their radar again until December, 2010 when the DCRI received information that he had been flagged on a visit to Afghanistan. The intelligence agency didn’t put in a request to its Toulouse service for an in-depth investigation into Merah until January, 2011 – more than a year later.

Complying with the orders, Merah was put under surveillance for a six month period.

During this time, the Toulouse service clearly documented the young man’s gravitation toward Islamist groups, his suspicious behaviour and his potential for radicalisation.
Despite the mounting evidence that Merah posed a possible threat, there was little to no follow up of his case.

Merah was even able to travel undetected to Pakistan in August 2011, where he is thought to have undergone training at a terrorist camp. Merah’s trip went initially unnoticed because he flew via Oman, which is not one of the 31 countries where French intelligence monitors travel.

Less than a year later on March 11, Merah shot his first victim in Toulouse.

Learning from past mistakes

Although the report’s authors conceded that it is difficult to know exactly when Merah crossed the line into “terrorism”, they did stress that the country’s intelligence agencies needed to take steps to better track future suspects, such as keeping tabs on them while in prison.

“Mohamed Merah … had been re-Islamified while incarcerated,” the report said. “A fact that was unknown to interior intelligence [officials] prior to their investigation during the beginning of 2011.”

Valls, who was given an advanced copy of the report on October 19, issued a statement on Tuesday saying that he had requested the probe as a means to learn from past mistakes to “enhance the effectiveness of intelligence services in the face of evolving terrorist threats”.

“The minister of the interior intends to rapidly put into place the necessary changes,” the statement added.

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