PARIS (Reuters) - France’s prime minister was forced to reject accusations on Friday that intelligence lapses allowed a young Muslim with a violent criminal record, spotted twice in Afghanistan, to become the first al Qaeda-inspired killer to strike on its soil.
Hardened by battling Islamic militants from its former North African colony of Algeria, France’s security services have long been regarded as among the most effective in Europe, having prevented militant attacks on French soil for the last 15 years.
Opposition politicians, including far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, suggested that negligence or errors had permitted Mohamed Merah, 23, to carry out three deadly shootings within 10 days before he was identified, located and killed.
But Prime Minister Francois Fillon said the police and intelligence agencies had done an exemplary job.
“Resolving a criminal case of this importance in 10 days, I believe that’s practically unprecedented in the history of our country,” Fillon told RTL radio.
Foreign Minister Alain Juppe had appeared to acknowledged on Thursday that there were grounds to question possible security flaws, saying: “We need to bring some clarity to this.”
Merah shot dead three Jewish children and four adults in three separate attacks despite having been under surveillance by the DCRI domestic intelligence agency, which questioned him as recently as November.
“Since the DCRI was following Mohamed Merah for a year, how come they took so long to locate him?” Socialist party security spokesman Francois Rebsamen asked on the JDD.fr website.
Merah’s elder brother Abdelkader, 29, who is being questioned by police, was also on a security watch list after being linked with the smuggling of Jihadist militants into Iraq in 2007, government officials said.
The left-leaning daily Liberation asked in an editorial whether the intelligence services had not “failed miserably”.
“How could they have so underestimated the potential danger of an individual they already knew?”
Merah, a French citizen of Algerian extraction, amassed a cache of at least eight guns under the noses of French intelligence, including several Colt .45 pistols of the kind he used in the shootings, but also at least one Uzi submachine gun, a Sten gun and a pump action shotgun.
In Washington, two U.S. officials said Merah was on a U.S. government “no fly” list, barring him from boarding any U.S.-bound aircraft. His name had been on the list for some time.
The officials said the entry included sufficient biometric detail to make clear the man on the blacklist was the same person involved in the Toulouse shootings. He was put on the list because U.S. officials deemed him a potential threat to aviation, one of the officials said.
Rebsamen said that after the shooting of two paratroopers in Montauban, near Toulouse, on March 15, Merah’s name was on top of a DCRI list of 20 people to be particularly closely watched in the southwestern Midi-Pyrenees region. Yet the agency appeared to have lost trace of him.
Investigators only tracked down Merah on Tuesday, a day after he had shot dead three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulouse. Interior Minister Claude Gueant said Merah was positively identified when a police helicopter overflew his home and he came to the window.
Merah was shot dead by a sniper after a gun battle with police on Thursday that ended a more than 30-hour siege at his Toulouse apartment. An autopsy showed the shootout left his body riddled with bullets, including two deadly shots to the head and abdomen, a legal source said on Friday.
The founder of the GIGN elite police force, which was not involved in the raid, criticized the RAID special commandos for failing to capture Merah alive, and said they should have used tear gas to overpower him.
“How can it be that the top police unit fails to capture a man who is alone?” Christian Prouteau, who headed the GIGN in the 1980s, told regional daily Ouest France. “They should have pumped him with tear gas. He wouldn’t have lasted five minutes.”
Police came up with his name when a list of 576 people who viewed an Internet advertisement placed by the shooter’s first victim was compared with the DCRI’s watchlist on Monday and led them to the IP address of Merah’s mother.
He had, however, been known to the Central Directorate of Interior Intelligence (DCRI) - the powerful super agency created by President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008 - since 2010. Merah first visited Afghanistan that year, was stopped at a checkpoint by Afghan police in Kandahar province and sent back to France by American forces.
His second visit ended after three months last October when he contracted hepatitis and returned home, according to the public prosecutor in charge of the case.
He was interviewed by DCRI agents in Toulouse in November but told them he had been on holiday - and even showed them photographs, prosecutor Francois Molins said.
Merah told police negotiators at his besieged home on Wednesday that he trained at an al Qaeda camp in the lawless Pakistani border region of Waziristan during the same trip.
Interior Minister Gueant said there had been no grounds to arrest Merah prior to the attacks. “The DCRI follows lots of people involved in radical Islam. Expressing ideas, espousing Salafist beliefs, is not a sufficient reason to arrest someone,” he said.
Although Merah could not have been arrested without proof of criminal intent, critics say authorities could have taken intermediate steps. French anti-terrorist law allows for the telephones of suspects to be tapped without judicial approval on the authority of the prime minister and an advisory panel.
Le Pen suggested the DCRI may have missed the gunman partly because it had been diverted by Sarkozy’s government to snoop on journalists and political opponents.
The agency’s head, Bernard Squarcini, is under investigation himself for ordering the illegal surveillance of Le Monde reporters’ telephones.
Squarcini said in an interview with Le Monde that security officials had naturally asked themselves whether they had missed clues or could have acted differently or faster.
“But it was impossible to say on Sunday evening (after the first shooting on March 11) ‘It’s Merah, let’s get him’.”
He also said Merah’s attack on the Jewish school had been a spur-of-the-moment decision after the gunman failed to find a soldier he planned to kill, according to his conversation with police negotiators during the siege of his home.
He said there were no signs Merah belonged to any radical Islamist network and he appeared to have turned fanatic alone.
While allies Britain and Spain have suffered major militant attacks in the last decade, following the U.S.-led NATO invasion of Afghanistan to topple the Taliban, France had not seen a major attack on its soil since the mid-1990s.
The Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) carried out a wave of attacks, including the bombing of a crowded commuter train in July 1995 which killed eight and injured 150 people.
The rise of al Qaeda, based in Afghanistan, posed a new challenge to French security services more used to watching Algerian-related militants, often with connections in what some French officials called “Londonistan”.
French-born Zacarias Moussaoui was sentenced to life imprisonment in the United States as one of the conspirators in the September 11, 2001 al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington and French-born Muslims were also active among Jihadi militants in Iraq.
The terror alert in France was raised after al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden singled it out as one of the worst offenders against Islam in October 2010.
But despite a spate of kidnappings of French citizens abroad, there were no attacks in mainland France. Officials say the intelligence services foiled several plots.
“In the last six years, at least eight attacks of the same type as the one that was perpetrated (by Merah) were broken up by the police without any publicity,” said Roland Jacquard, head of the International Terrorism Observatory.
Merah’s case awakened uncomfortable memories of GIA bomber Khaled Kelkal, the man behind the Paris Metro bombings, who was shot dead by police in 1995. Like Merah, he had a history of petty crime in France, having grown up in a poor suburb of Lyon.
Like Merah, he appears to have come into contact with a radical Islamic network in prison. But Kelkal also formed part of an international network, while Merah - despite his al Qaeda boasts - may have been a lone wolf.
Additional reporting by Thierry Leveque, Gerard Bon and Vicky Buffery; Reporting By Daniel Flynn; Editing by Paul Taylor