France appears to have badly mishandled the case of Mohammed Merah, the gunman responsible for the school killings in Toulouse last week. Despite numerous signs of radical Islamist leanings — including being placed on the U.S. no-fly list, claiming he had been trained by radical Jihadists, and threatening to kill a French family in 2010 after it objected to his attempt to force their son to watch videos of beheadings — he was not detained by French authorities. Measures being contemplated by French authorities to combat radical Islam in France do not address the underlying societal causes of this threat, as LIGNET explains.
U.S. officials told Reuters that Mohammed Merah was on a U.S. no-fly list because he traveled to both Pakistan and Afghanistan and claimed to have attended an al-Qaeda training camp. Although French authorities claim to have put Merah under surveillance, has was able to acquire a large collection of firearms, including automatic weapons.
This month, France was rocked by three related terrorist attacks. On March 11, an attacker shot and killed a paratrooper in Toulouse. The perpetrator posed as someone interested in purchasing a scooter and then shot the seller. Four days later, two more soldiers were killed and another was injured 30 miles outside of Toulouse by a man wearing a motorcycle helmet. On March 19, a man on a motor scooter pulled up to a private Jewish school in Toulouse and shot three children and a rabbi before speeding away.
Ten days after the first attack, police identified the main suspect as Mohammed Merah, 23. Police confronted Merah at his apartment in Toulouse, where he exchanged gunfire and refused to surrender for 32 hours. During the standoff, Merah admitted responsibility for the attacks. He said the killings were to protest French military involvement in Muslim countries and a law banning facial veils in public. Merah reportedly told authorities he was a freedom fighter and was also avenging the deaths of Palestinian children. The siege ended when commandos shot and killed Merah.
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon disputed criticism that French authorities mishandled Merah and that this was an intelligence failure. Fillon said on March 23 that there were no grounds for arresting Merah and that French security "did enough surveillance to see that there was no evidence that he was a dangerous man." He added that we cannot mix up religious fundamentalism with terrorism, even if we know that there are elements that unite them."
U.S. and French authorities confirmed to media outlets that Merah, a French citizen of Algerian descent, traveled to Afghanistan in 2010 to obtain terrorist training from Islamic militants. He spent time with militants along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border before being captured and returned to France. He was also placed on the U.S. no-fly list. U.S. officials said Merah was held by U.S. forces in Afghanistan before he was released to French authorities. French officials reported that Merah again traveled to Afghanistan at a later date, and returned to France voluntarily after contracting hepatitis.
Although French authorities had placed Merah under surveillance, he still was able to obtain a large collection of firearms, including automatic weapons.
The French newspaper Le Telegramme reported in 2010 that Merah was trying to recruit young boys to be radical Jihadists and forcing them to watch videos of beheadings. When the mother of one of the boys filed a complaint against Merah for this activity, he threatened to kill the family, tried to seize the boy, and beat up his sister, according to a complaint lodged by the family in June 2010. The family also alleges that Merah declared he was a "Mujahedeen" and would die a martyr. According to press accounts, there was no follow-up by French police to this complaint.
Israeli counterterrorism experts have sharply criticized the 32-hour siege that ended when Merah was shot after he tried to escape by jumping through a window. Alec Ron, former head of an Israeli police commando unit, described the siege as characterized by "utter confusion and unprofessionalism," compounded by a lack of real-time intelligence about what was happening inside the building.
After the Toulouse shootings, French police arrested Merah's brother, Abdelkader Merah, for complicity in seven murders and two attempted murders and conspiracy to prepare acts of terrorism and group theft. Abdelkader denies any involvement in the attacks. However, French authorities say they believe Abdelkader provided logistical support to his brother, who operated under his influence. Authorities currently are investigating whether there is enough evidence to formally charge Abdelkader for his brother's attacks. Abdelkader has claimed authorities are making him a scapegoat since his brother is dead and unable to stand trial.
French authorities were aware of Abdelkader Merah, who they report was once linked to a network that sent radical Islamist fighters to Iraq. Élisabeth Allannic, a spokeswoman for the office of the prosecutor in Paris, described Abelkader Merah as "anchored in a radical Islam, favorable toward armed jihad," but said his activities had never led to his arrest in France. The mother of the boy who filed the June 2010 complaint against Merah also accused Abdelkader Merah of indoctrinating his brother, calling him "the brain" who "packed his skull," according to a March 21 article in Le Telegramme.
As a partial response to the killings, France announced it will bar Muslim clerics it considers "too radical" from entering the country for a Union of Islamic Organizations conference next month. One of those banned is Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric who lives in exile in Qatar. Mr. Qaradawi was also denied a visa by Britain for allegedly seeking to "justify acts of terrorist violence or disburse views that could foster intercommunity violence." President Nicolas Sarkozy also reiterated he wants France to prosecute people who consult web sites advocating radical Islam and who travel overseas for terrorist training.
This tragedy is a wake-up call to France about the dangers of radical Islamists and a validation of U.S. policies to arrest and detain radical Islamists, policies that have been heavily criticized in France. The U.S. military released Merah to French officials because of his French citizenship. If Merah had been a Yemeni or a Pakistani, U.S. forces probably would have detained him indefinitely.
Although Merah does not appear to have been an official member of a terrorist group, he had strong radical sympathies and may be a prime example of a "self-radicalized" or "home-grown" terrorist. Merah was clearly inspired by radical Islamist rhetoric and ideals. His travels to Afghanistan and Pakistan reinforced those views.
The mistakes that French authorities appeared to make in handling the Merah case stem from a reluctance to confront radical Islamists for fear of violating their civil liberties and inflaming French Muslims. This is a huge problem for France given its large number of Muslim immigrants from North Africa and the difficulties of assimilating them into French society. There are an estimated five million Muslims in France, the largest Islamic minority in Europe.
Sarkozy's efforts to ban radical Islamist clerics from entering France and restricting access to radical websites will do little to stop the rise of more home-grown Islamist radicals in France. The real root of this problem is poverty and high unemployment in the French Muslim ghettos which are breeding grounds for radical Islam and were the scenes of riots in 2005, 2007, and 2010.
It is worth noting there probably is a direct connection between the stand-offish approach that French police employed in monitoring Merah and the riots by French Muslims over the last ten years. Each of the riots were in response to the deaths of Muslim youth who were being pursued by French police, which may have made French security officers reluctant to take aggressive action against Muslim suspects for fear of sparking a new round of riots.
While Merah's killings will force an examination of French policies on dealing with radical Islamists, this problem will probably continue and grow due to the high level of poverty and unemployment in Muslim ghettos in France. As long as this segment of the French population is kept out of mainstream French society, it will remain fertile ground for radical Islamists and home-grown terrorism.
(The Langley Intelligence Group Network, www.lignet.com, is a new DC-based global intelligence and forecasting service. The author, Fred Fleitz, used to be chief of staff of the House Intelligence Committee. )