French intelligence slammed over shooter
Paris - The French government went on the defensive on Thursday amid questions over why its intelligence service had failed to deal with petty criminal turned alleged jihadist serial killer Mohamed Merah.
Self-confessed al-Qaeda militant Merah, aged 23, died in a police assault on his flat on Thursday, but he was tracked down after murdering seven people, including three Jewish children and three soldiers, in a series of attacks.
With hindsight, Merah's past appears to make him an obvious suspect - he had at least 15 criminal convictions, some with violence, had become a radical Islamist and travelled to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
He and his brother were both known to French intelligence because of their fundamentalist Salafist ideology.
One press report said that in 2010 Merah forced a youth to watch videos of al-Qaeda hostage beheadings. When the boy's mother complained, Merah allegedly attacked her, putting her in hospital for several days.
Merah allegedly later went into the street outside the woman's house, wearing military fatigues and brandishing a sword, shouting "I'm with al-Qaeda", the Telegramme newspaper reported.
A criminal complaint was lodged and police interviewed the woman but apparently there was no follow up.
Top prosecutor Francois Molins said Merah claimed to have been trained by al-Qaeda in the Pakistani-Afghanistan region Waziristan, a notorious hotbed of Islamist militancy.
Molins said the suspect had gone to the region twice and on one occasion had been arrested by Afghan police and handed over to US army troops, who put him on a flight back to France.
French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who has been lambasting Muslim immigration as part of her presidential election campaign, was quick to accuse the government of "laxity" towards the "fundamentalist risk".
Socialist Jean-Pierre Chevenement, a former defence and interior minister, said the killings were "a warning for services in charge of anti-terrorism".
But members of President Nicolas Sarkozy's right-wing government sought to defend their record.
"The DCRI [domestic intelligence agency] tracks a lot of people who are involved in Islamist radicalism. Expressing ideas... is not enough to bring someone before justice," Interior Minister Claude Gueant said on Thursday.
He said there had never been any "criminal tendencies" in Islamist radicals in Merah's hometown of Toulouse and no indication that any attacks were being prepared, while admitting security services had known about Merah "for years".
Officials have said Merah acted alone and Gueant said it was extremely difficult to fight against "an isolated individual".
"These so-called lone wolves are formidable opponents," he said.
Foreign Minister Alain Juppe "light must be shed" on what happened in the run-up to the killings, but insisted there was "no reason" to think there were any failings.
"I understand that one can ask whether there was a failing or not. As I don't know if there was a failing, I can't tell you what kind of failing, but light must be shed on that," Juppe told Europe 1 radio.
Asked why more means were not put into tracking the estimated 15 to 30 militant Islamists in France, Juppe said: "They are tracked" and Merah "was recently questioned by the intelligence services".
"I personally don't have any reason to think there was a failing. If it turns out that there was one then of course light must be shed but I absolutely have not said there was one," a defensive Juppe said.
Security expert Francois Heisbourg said that "the question should at least be asked" about eventual intelligence errors.
"The Merah brothers were indeed known to the intelligence services. For me there's a real question: why was he not placed under normal, usual surveillance?" he asked
"French intelligence has been terrific these last 15 years in the fight against terrorism. There hasn't been a 'successful' attack since 1996 in mainland France.
"To err is perfectly human. For me, it was clear that our immunity to attacks couldn't last forever. One day or another a terrorist was going to slip through the net, but of course that can't excuse any possible errors of judgement."