WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The French Islamist gunman suspected of murdering seven people who was killed in a shootout with police on Thursday was on a “no-fly” list maintained by U.S. authorities, U.S. officials said.
Mohammed Merah was placed on the list some time ago, two officials said, but they would not disclose precisely when.
A source familiar with the listing process said that to have been put on the “no-fly” list, Merah would have had to have been assessed by U.S. security officials as being capable of bringing down an airplane in flight.
The “no-fly” list is the most restrictive blacklist used by U.S. authorities to prevent would-be passengers flying around or to and from the United States. It is maintained by the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), a unit run by the FBI that uses information supplied by numerous government agencies.
Merah, suspected of shooting three French paratroopers, three young children and a rabbi, was killed during an exchange of gunfire with police who besieged his apartment in the French city of Toulouse.
U.S. and French authorities said Merah, who was of Algerian origin, had traveled to Afghanistan around 2010 to obtain training from Islamic militants. He had spent time with militants along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border before being captured and returned to France.
At some point after his capture, two other U.S. officials said, Merah was held in custody by U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The officials declined to give details of how and when this occurred and what happened to him next.
French authorities said he traveled to Afghanistan again more recently, but returned to France on his own after contracting hepatitis.
The U.S. officials also declined to say whether Merah’s name was put on the “no-fly” list based solely on information collected by U.S. agencies or whether France provided the United States with information.
The “no-fly” list used to be limited to about 4,000 names of individuals deemed to pose a direct threat if allowed aboard an aircraft. The TSC also maintained a larger “selectee” list, composed of people supposed to receive extra pre-flight security screening if they show up at an airport.
The rules for compiling these lists were revised after the Christmas Day 2009 incident in which Umar Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian militant who had been in contact with militants in Yemen, tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner with a bomb hidden in his underpants.
U.S. agencies had accumulated intelligence indicating possible threats emanating from Yemen, and the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria had also received a warning from Abdulmutallab’s father expressing concern about his son’s involvement with militants.
But while information about Abdulmutallab had been entered in TIDE, a database of about 550,000 militant suspects maintained by the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, his name was never put on the “no-fly” or “selectee” lists.
The fact Abdulmutallab was allowed on a U.S.-bound flight even though U.S. agencies had intelligence traces linking him to militants led to investigations by the White House and Congress and changes in transportation watch-listing systems.
Reporting by Mark Hosenball; editing by Christopher Wilson