Toulouse gunman: the blunders of France's domestic intelligence

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French interior minister Manuel Valls last week presented the findings of a damning official police internal investigation into the handling of the case of Toulouse gunman Mohammed Merah, a self-confessed jihadist who shot seven dead in a ten-day rampage in south-west France in March, and in which France’s intelligence services have been accused of deliberately hiding their role. Louise Fessard examines the report’s findings.  

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Last week French interior minister Manuel Valls presented the findings of a damning official police internal investigation into the handling of the case of Toulouse gunman Mohammed Merah, a self-confessed jihadist who shot seven dead in a ten-day rampage in south-west France in March, and in which France’s intelligence services have been accused of deliberately hiding their role.

The 17-page report, by the French police’s internal investigation and disciplinary department, the Inspection générale de la police nationale, the IGPN, was scathing of the actions of France’s domestic intelligence agency, the Direction centrale du renseignement intérieur, the DCRI, which had been monitoring Merah for several years before the shootings.

Controversy and mystery continues to surround the DCRI’s responsibility for failing to arrest Merah before he began the killing spree, which claimed the lives of four adults and three children. Merah, 23, began by shooting dead three French paratroopers of North African origin, before attacking a Jewish school in Toulouse where he murdered a Rabbi and three pupils aged 3, 6 and 7. He died in a shootout with police after a two-day siege of his apartment in Toulouse.

The relatives of several of his victims have denounced a cover-up by the DCRI and the former French government of Nicolas Sarkozy, alleging Merah was used as a double-agent by the French intelligence services and that the authorities have deliberately misled public opinion describing him as a “solitary” terrorist.  

Commissioned in June, Valls said the IGPN report, published on October 23rd, was an effort “to re-open [the process of] democratic, and thus parliamentary, control of intelligence activities”. Indeed, the enquiry represented a very rare outside scrutiny of the workings of France’s highly-secretive intelligence services.   

The IGPN report carefully avoided identifying the potential responsibilities of those in office at the time of the Merah shootings, although many key figures in the affair have been replaced since the change of government. Bernard Squarcini, then head of the DCRI, was ousted following the socialist victory in the presidential election last May. Mediapart has learnt that the DCRI’s regional director in Toulouse has, more recently, also been replaced.  

Bernard Squarcini, très proche de Sarkozy, fut le patron de la DCRI. © Reuters Bernard Squarcini, très proche de Sarkozy, fut le patron de la DCRI. © Reuters

Claude Guéant, interior minister at the time, travelled to Toulouse to be close to the police siege of Merah’s apartment, an unprecedented move in France where senior ministers normally oversee events from Paris. On March 23rd, the day after the siege ended, and as criticism of the special forces' intervention and dysfunctions at the DCRI began to emerge, he told French daily Le Figaro that "neither [Merah] nor those he associated with had ever given the slightest indication of being dangerous".

The IGPN report said the failures it identified did not come from "any defined human error" but from "omissions" and "errors of appreciation". It also cited "problems of leadership and organisation of departments" and what it called "compartmentalisation" between the various police departments concerned – domestic intelligence, criminal investigation and public safety.

Overall, the IGPN report (see below) reveals a series of blunders and an astonishing degree of amateurism.

 

Firstly, it confirms that Merah had in fact been "the object of the intelligence services' attention" with his own "S" file – this being a category of file the DCRI uses for suspects deemed to be high-risk - from 2006 onwards, contrary to what Bernard Squarcini himself has said. In an interview with French daily Le Monde in March 2012, he claimed that the DCRI had first come across Mohamed Merah in November 2010 after US forces arrested him in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

The report also identifies an initial failure in what it calls the "inopportune" deactivation of this file between March 2010 and January 2011. The two IGPN police inspectors who wrote the report note that this was particularly surprising, as "Mohamed Merah’s contact details had been discovered [in 2009] in the list of contacts belonging to one of the members of a Toulouse-based group that sent jihadists to Iraq".

They continue: "It was not until after information relating to the identification of Mohamed Merah in Afghanistan was obtained [on November 22nd 2010] that the Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur sent a request to its Toulouse office in January 2011 for an in-depth inquiry." It also criticised the length of time it took the DCRI to react to this, then the slowness of the Toulouse office in following it up.

After that, Merah was the object of surveillance, both of his telephone conversations and his movements, for several months. The report notes that from mid-2011, this surveillance "reveals Merah’s Islamist profile, his extremely suspicious behaviour and his potential for radicalisation." Then followed a series of failures, according to the IGPN report.

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