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Tough questions linger a year after Toulouse killings

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2013-03-11

This week, France marks the one-year anniversary of the killings of seven people by self-proclaimed jihadist Mohamed Merah, an event which sent the country reeling and raised questions about the efficacy of French domestic intelligence services.

French-Algerian gunman Mohamed Merah murdered his first victim, parachutist Imad Ibn Ziaten, exactly one year ago today in the southern city of Toulouse before embarking on a nine-day killing spree that left seven dead and sent France reeling in shock and grief.

France will mark the anniversary of Ziaten’s death on Monday, kicking off a week-long commemoration of the killings of three soldiers and four Jewish civilians in Toulouse and the neighbouring city of Montauban.

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was due to award the parachutist a posthumous Legion of Honour in Toulouse on Monday around noon. Also on Monday, the mayor of Toulouse, Pierre Cohen, will unveil a commemorative plaque paying tribute to the soldier at a ceremony in the presence of the victim’s parents.

Other ceremonies will take place throughout the week, culminating in a silent march scheduled for Sunday in Toulouse.

But France will also spend the week revisiting and reassessing the potential intelligence and investigative failures that some say allowed the self-proclaimed jihadist to slip through the cracks.

A criminal past, inconsistently monitored

Merah killed his first victim after arranging to meet him over the Internet by pretending to be interested in buying the soldier’s motorcycle.

He went on to kill two other parachutists, Abel Chennouf and Mohamed Legouade, on March 15 in Montauban, and then a rabbi, Jonathan Sandler, his two sons and a young girl at a Jewish school in Toulouse on March 19.

Merah was shot dead by French special forces on March 22.

Today, Merah’s brother, Abdelkader, is the only person to have been indicted in the case as an accomplice. He is currently in jail, though he has denied any direct involvement in the murders. Five other people have been questioned and subsequently released.

Merah had at least 15 prior criminal convictions, including one incident in 2010 in which he attacked a neighbour who had confronted him for showing her son a jihadist video of a decapitation.

But despite Merah’s record, and the fact that French internal intelligence agency DCRI had been sporadically monitoring him since 2006, the agency decided not to recruit him as an “asset” , or source, Interior Minister Manuel Valls told journalists on Sunday.

“It may have been an idea that was brought up at one point, but the people on the ground discarded it,” the minister said when questioned about whether the DCRI had been planning on asking Merah to provide them information in exchange for immunity for his past crimes.

The DCRI did not even start seriously investigating Merah until 2011, when they received news that he had visited Afghanistan. The Toulouse branch of the agency was therefore aware of the young man’s interest in Islamist groups, but did not follow up on his case.

In 2011, less than a year before he shot his first victim, Merah travelled to Pakistan, where he is suspected of having trained at a terrorist camp. The trip failed to register on the DCRI’s radar because Merah flew via Oman, which is not a country where French intelligence monitors travel.

‘He tricked us’

In his interview on Sunday, Valls said there had been “dysfunction” and “errors” in the DCRI’s surveillance of Merah.

“The DCRI for several years considered Mohamed Merah as a…particularly dangerous individual. After his return from Afghanistan, it was believed that he was no longer dangerous,” Valls said. “That is incomprehensible for the families [of the victims] and for me, as interior minister. We need to understand what happened so that it never happens again.”

Claude Guéant, who was interior minister at the time of the killings (under former president Nicolas Sarkozy), reminded journalists over the weekend that from 2007 to 2012, “Merah’s phones had been tapped…and he had been under very close surveillance”.

He also pointedly defended his own record, and that of the DCRI, which was under his jurisdiction as interior minister.

“The judgement made was that he displayed no signs of posing a danger or any criminal intention,” Guéant said in a radio interview. “It’s terrible to say, but he tricked us….He had a double personality, and knew how to pretend and hide things….but I can’t let anyone say that the [intelligence] services were inattentive and insufficiently present on this case.”

Meanwhile, as the political class reassesses the protocol and procedures widely believed to have fallen short in preventing Merah from committing his crimes, Toulouse and Montauban are bracing themselves for a week of painful remembrance.

“I think the suffering and the horror of what happened are so great, that we can never turn the page on this,” Pierre Cohen, the mayor of Toulouse, said. “We can never forget it.”

Date created : 2013-03-11


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