PARIS (Reuters) - France questioned on Thursday whether its intelligence service had blundered by allowing 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 terror attacks on French soil for the last 15 years.
But Foreign Minister Alain Juppe acknowledged on Thursday there was reason to ask whether security flaws had permitted Mohamed Merah, 23, to carry out three deadly shootings within 10 days before he was identified, located and killed.
“One can ask the question whether there was a failure or not,” Juppe told Europe 1 radio. “We need to bring some clarity to this.”
Opposition leaders, including far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, demanded to know how Merah was able to shoot dead three Jewish children and four adults despite being allegedly under surveillance and having been questioned as recently as November by the DCRI domestic intelligence agency.
“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, a French citizen of Algerian extraction, was also able to amass 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. The officials said that 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 persons to be particularly closely watched in the southwestern Midi-Pyrenees region. Yet the agency appeared to have lost his trace.
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 located with certainty when a police helicopter overflew his home and he came to the window.
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 watch list 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 Sarkozy in 2008 - since 2010. Merah first visited Afghanistan that year, was stopped at a road 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 to Afghanistan on holiday - and even showed the 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 Claude Gueant rejected accusations of intelligence slip-ups.
“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 demanded to know why the security services had not kept Merah under tighter surveillance since his return last year, suggesting they had been diverted by President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government to snoop on journalists and political opponents.
“Did they react fast enough? Was he watched closely enough?” Le Pen told reporters.
The agency’s head, Bernard Sqarcini, is under investigation himself for illegal wire-tapping of Le Monde reporters.
Some ordinary citizens, who vote in first round of presidential elections on April 22, also suggested the authorities were slow to halt Merah’s rampage.
“They should have got him a long time ago, they knew where he was and what he’d done,” said Amairi Messaoud, 55, manager of a fast food restaurant in Paris. “How come he had been in court 15 times for minor offences and they didn’t get him.”
While allies Britain and Spain have suffered major terrorist 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 extremists, 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.
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 on 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 extremist.
“The anti-terrorism services knew that one day, a single person, a self-radicalized person who was not necessarily being monitored by the police, could strike,” said Jacquard. “Today, training camps also mean the Internet.”
Additional reporting by Thierry Leveque, Gerard Bon and Vicky Buffery; Reporting By Daniel Flynn; Editing by Paul Taylor