Mohamed Merah: what French intelligence knew...and what they missed

Mohamed Merah Credit: Reuters

It seemed to have been a text-book operation: the French police and security services had quickly found their man, surrounded him and ultimately, when he wouldn't surrender, killed him in a violent shoot out. Mohamed Merah was, said the Paris prosecutor François Molins, a ‘lone-wolf’ acting independently of any known terrorist cell. In other words, how could we possibly have known?

The day after the shoot-out and the picture is beginning to look very different. It appears that this was no lone-wolf, but a man so well known to the intelligence services that the Americans had had him on a no-fly list “for some time”. His travels to Afghanistan, Iraq and the tribal areas of Waziristan in North West Pakistan were all known and well-documented, as were his family links to an Islamic group in France, several of whose members had been convicted of associating with terrorists.

Perhaps most damning of all, police in Toulouse had tracked down Merah to his Toulouse apartment through an internet address that was connected to last week's killings of 3 French paratroopers. But the police had that address as early as last Saturday, between 36 and 48 hours before the cold-blooded murder of 3 Jewish children and an adult on Monday morning. Suddenly the French intelligence agencies, the DGSE and the DCRI don’t look quite so efficient.

Not only had Merah visited Afghanistan, in 2010 he had been arrested in Kandahar by Afghan police, handed over to NATO forces and immediately deported back to France. He had been questioned by French intelligence after arriving back home, but almost incredibly they seem to have accepted his explanation that he had gone there ‘as a tourist’. A well travelled tourist at that, because his passport is reported to have had stamps from Israel, Syria, Iraq and Jordan as well.

Masked French special unit policemen leave the scene after the assault to capture gunman Mohamed Merah Credit: Reuters

Merah’s brother, Abdelkader, was also known to the authorities for his association with an Islamic splinter group, and for having attended a religious school in Cairo. As if all of this wasn’t enough, the newspaper Le Monde quotes a French military source in Afghanistan as saying that Merah was known to have visited Iran. The French counter-terrorist agency, the DCRI, would say nothing more to the paper about that.

Le Monde also reports that Merah is on record as having been given permission to visit a known activist, Sabri Essid, in jail. Essid had been arrested in possession of arms on the border between Syria and Iraq. Essid’s father had later married Merah’s mother, a union brokered, French police believe, by Mohamed Merah himself.

All of which leaves the French authorities facing some pretty embarrassing questions over the next few days. If the CIA were aware of, and were watching this man, why weren’t their French equivalents the DGSE? I all takes a considerable gloss off the ‘success’ of the police and intelligence agencies in tracking Merah down within a few hours of the killings at the Jewish school. There will be a powerful case made that Merah, given his known record, should never have been able to obtain a cache of powerful weapons and ammunition, and should have been stopped before the first killings of French troops, let alone before the second massacre of Jewish children.

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy is seen making a statement on the death of Merah Credit: Reuters

It may also make the events this week in Toulouse a rapidly diminishing asset for the Sarkozy campaign. Cool competence and an aura of statesmanship have been the carefully cultivated responses of the President since this crisis broke. Those around him have accused his opponent François Hollande of under-estimating the threat posed by fundamentalism. If it turns out that it was not the opposition, but the Government and its security agencies, that weren’t taking the home-grown Islamic threat seriously enough, Sarkozy’s efforts to turn his campaign around by presenting himself as the ‘the security President‘ may come to nothing.