French defensive over handling of Toulouse killings

Sat, Mar 24, 2012, 00:00

THE FRENCH government was put on the defensive yesterday over its handling of the killings in Toulouse amid claims that police were too slow in identifying the chief suspect and then botched the raid on his apartment.

Opposition politicians suggested that errors allowed Mohamed Merah (23) to kill seven people in three attacks over 10 days before he was identified, located and killed. “Since the DCRI [domestic intelligence] was following Mohamed Merah for a year, how come they took so long to locate him?” Socialist Party security spokesman François Rebsamen asked.

The daily Libération 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?” French authorities said Merah travelled to Afghanistan and Pakistan twice, and on one occasion was picked up by Afghan police and handed over to US army troops, who put him on a flight back to France.

He was interviewed by intelligence officers last November but told them he had travelled to Afghanistan for tourism, even showing them holiday photographs. The interior ministry said he had a police record for minor offences, but he was fully co-operative and there was no evidence he belonged to any group or was planning murders.

Responding to criticism that investigators should have been quicker to identify him as a suspect, the head of the DCRI, Bernard Squarcini, said Merah did not fit any of the typical profiles for Islamist radicals. He did not frequent a mosque, appeared to have self-radicalised and was not operating within any wider group, he said. “The DCRI follows lots of people involved in radical Islam. Expressing ideas, espousing Salafist beliefs, is not a sufficient reason to arrest someone,” interior minister Claude Guéant said.

Nonetheless, Merah’s name was one of six potential Islamist suspects presented to police investigating the seven killings in Toulouse.

When police traced a computer IP address to the home of Merah’s mother on Sunday, that gave them the lead they needed. But they only tracked him down on Tuesday, by which time he had killed three children and a rabbi.

“Unfortunately, there were innocent victims, but there could have been more. We couldn’t have gone any faster. We would have liked to,” said Mr Squarcini.

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.

Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, suggested the DCRI might have missed the gunman partly because it had been diverted by President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government to spy on journalists and political opponents.

Mr 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], ‘It’s Merah, let’s get him’.” He 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.

Questions were raised yesterday about the police raid on Merah’s home and the 32-hour siege that ended when he was shot dead by police on Thursday morning. “How is it that the best police unit could not succeed in arresting a man who was on his own?” asked Christian Prouteau, the founder of the GIGN commando unit. Mr Prouteau was critical of the decision to target Merah in his own home, and suggested tear gas should have been used to disorient him.

Mr Guéant said Mr Sarkozy had urged police to pursue negotiations with Merah as long as possible, before he finally agreed to an assault on Thursday morning.