French Counterterrorism Policy in the Wake of Mohammed Merah’s Attack
Apr 23, 2012
For 16 years, French counterterrorism officials successfully prevented a number of terrorist attacks. Human and technical surveillance, close coordination between justice and police, special courts exclusively composed of magistrates, legal authority to arrest and detain, and the ability to prosecute individuals based on intent to commit a terrorist attack enabled the French government to “neutralize an average of two to three groups representing a serious menace every year; that is to say groups ready to spring into action and conduct attacks,” according to French antiterrorism judge Marc Trevidic. Last month, however, a 23-year-old Frenchman of Muslim faith, Mohammed Merah, evaded the system and killed three French soldiers, three Jewish children, and one Jewish teacher in an eight day shooting spree from March 11-19, 2012. Merah was identified and located the day after the last shooting at the Ozar Hatorah School in Toulouse and killed by police on March 22 after a 32-hour siege.
The first successful terrorist attack in 16 years in France is shaping up to be a watershed moment for French counterterrorism policy. The failure to prevent the attacks, the eight-day delay in identifying Merah as the assailant, and the police’s inability to capture him alive to stand trial after a 32-hour media frenzied stand-off prompted unusually vocal public and pointed criticisms of the French counterterrorism establishment. Such criticisms are uncommon in France because counterterrorism operations usually occur far from the public sphere and parliamentary oversight is limited. Of course, the fact that the shooting spree occurred amidst a presidential campaign fueled the controversies, but the criticisms go beyond politics as usual and raise key questions for the future of French counterterrorism policy.
Journalists questioned why the Direction Centrale du Renseignement Interieur (DCRI) failed to uncover Merah’s plan before it was executed, and why it took so long to identify him as the assailant. Others wondered why the police took 32 hours to neutralize Merah when he was barricaded in an apartment. In the aftermath of Merah’s death, French Foreign Affairs Minister Alain Juppe spoke of a DCRI failure, while Minister of Defense Gerard Longuet asked whether too much time had been spent on ultimately irrelevant leads. Front National presidential candidate Marine Le Pen accused the government of being too soft on radical Islamists and called for stricter immigration laws. Socialist candidate Francois Hollande asked for a review of all current antiterrorism laws, organizations, and procedures. Green candidate Eva Joly and several Socialist deputies criticized the police raid as ineffective or unlawful. Some called for the resignation of Minister of Interior Claude Gueant.
This article will examine how Merah slipped through France’s counterterrorism defenses, as well as why it took so long to apprehend him. It will then review the legal, organizational, and political fallout as a result of the incident.
What Went Wrong?
According to French Internal Intelligence Chief Bernard Squarcini, nothing went wrong. In an interview to Le Monde, Squarcini argued that Merah went undetected because he was “undetectable,” the product of an atypical Salafi-jihadi self-radicalization process. He became radicalized alone while reading the Qur’an in prison. He was neither connected to any known jihadist organizational structure, nor did he travel to the Middle East and the Caucasus through the established and monitored organized channels. Nevertheless, there are a number of key questions in light of Merah’s attack.
Was Mohammed Merah misdiagnosed as a dangerous individual susceptible to engagement in terrorist attacks?
In May 2011, Bernard Squarcini identified three key risk factors for propensity to engage in terrorism: membership in or association with al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), having attended a militant training camp in Pakistan, and being a societal loner. Merah was known for being a loner with psychiatric troubles, a propensity for violence, and for having traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2010 and 2011. Based on the DCRI’s own recognition that profiles such as Merah were susceptible to act, a fair question is why Merah was not more closely monitored before his move to violence. It is also surprising that after the first murder, controlling those individuals known to have traveled to Afghanistan or Pakistan—about two dozen, according to terrorism expert Francois Heisbourg—did not become a top priority. Merah was not identified as a possible suspect until after the second attack on March 15; his connection to the first victim was uncovered on March 17, two days before the attack at the Ozar Hatorah School. An early check on the whereabouts of known travelers to Afghanistan and Pakistan—which would have flagged Merah—might have prevented the last two attacks.
Why did the DCRI only learn of Merah in the fall of 2010?
According to Bernard Squarcini, the DCRI first learned of Mohammed Merah after he was captured by Afghan security forces in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in November 2010. According to the Nouvel Observateur, however, in 2006 the Renseignements Generaux (RG)—a service that would later be fused with the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST) into the DCRI—had determined Merah to be a threat to the state’s security. An administrative note written in 2006 categorized him as a “member of the radical Islamist movement likely to travel abroad and provide logistical assistance to extremist militants.” Squarcini’s interview indicates that the DCRI did not know about the RG record. According to the Nouvel Observateur, the record was lost in 2008 at the time of the DCRI’s creation. The French government has neither confirmed nor denied this new information.
Does the DCRI have the capability to detect lone wolves?
According to Bernard Squarcini, the DCRI questioned Mohammed Merah after his 2010 journey to Afghanistan. The service contacted him when he was in Pakistan in 2011 and interviewed him again upon his return to Toulouse. At that point, he was put under surveillance for a few months. The surveillance revealed no suspicious religious or ideological activities. This raises the question as to whether the DCRI is prepared to effectively disrupt plots by true “lone wolf” terrorists with no organizational links to an established cell. Moreover, it appears that the DCRI prioritizes identifying and disrupting terrorist cells, rather than developing better methods to mitigate the risk from a lone wolf.
Should Merah’s extensive travel throughout the Middle East, Central and South Asia raised more alarm?
According to Bernard Squarcini, Merah traveled extensively, to Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. In 2010, he was picked up by Afghan security forces in Kandahar, handed to U.S. forces, and then put on a Paris-bound plane after alerting the French military intelligence services. Neither the DCRI nor the Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure (DGSE) had known that he was in Afghanistan. Yet by that time, Mohammed Merah and his brother, Abdelkader, had already been involved with the ringleader of a small group accused of sending young French aspiring jihadists to Iraq. Mohammed visited the ringleader in prison, and the Merah brothers arranged for the ringleader’s father to marry their mother. Mohammed had traveled extensively in the Middle East on the modest salary of an auto mechanic. Yet, according to the Nouvel Observateur, after interviewing Merah upon his return from Pakistan in December 2011, the DCRI labeled him a “militant close to the jihadist movement” and requested that they be notified if he crosses any state borders. This begs the question as to whether the DCRI misinterpreted key clues based on the countries to which he traveled, the conditions in which he traveled, and his connections to people who had been involved in an effort to send foreign fighters to Iraq in 2007.
Why did the police operation fail?
The failure to arrest Mohammed Merah during a surprise night raid and the subsequent media frenzied siege on his apartment also raised numerous questions. According to Claude Gueant, minister of the interior, the police’s goal was to take Merah alive so he could face justice. Yet after a 32-hour siege and countless hours of negotiations, the police failed to erode Merah’s will to resist or to convince him to surrender. As one Socialist deputy, Jerome Guedj, provocatively put it: “So if I understand correctly, in 30 hours, the RAID [Recherche Assistance Intervention Dissuasion] is unable to go pick up an individual alone in his apartment.” Meanwhile, retired officials from the RAID and from the Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale (GIGN, the Gendarmerie counterpart to the RAID) both questioned the tactics used in the raid to capture Merah. Observers blamed the government for politicizing and micro managing the police operation.
Legal, Organizational, and Political Fallout
For the time being, the fallout of Merah’s attacks concerns the legal framework for combating terrorism and the role and missions of the DCRI. Despite the criticisms of its operation to capture Merah, the RAID is not the subject of reform proposals. Facing intense criticism, the government responded quickly with several initiatives.
First, the Ministry of Interior initiated a crackdown against radical Islamists. The government targeted Forsane Alizza, a small group known for calling for France’s Islamization, preaching hate, and promoting Usama bin Ladin. Thirteen of the 17 people arrested remain in detention and charged with terrorism-related offenses. The group became known for fiery anti-French and anti-Western rants, provocative public demonstrations, and ambiguous incitement to violence. Under current legislation, the government accused the group of masterminding the kidnapping of a French judge. Coming in the aftermath of the attacks in Toulouse and Montauban, the arrests seem to indicate that the French government is intensifying its offensive against groups and individuals whose actions might incite others to commit violence and acts of terrorism.
Second, immediately following Merah’s death, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced two new legislative initiatives designed to strengthen the legal arsenal against would-be terrorists: one designed to curtail access to jihadist websites, and the other designed to criminalize traveling to “insurrectionary countries.” Socialist candidate Francois Hollande indicated that he was favorable to a law dealing with the second problem. On April 4, the government released a draft new law that encompasses both problems. The new proposed law is designed to curtail the promotion of terrorism. Key provisions include:
- regular surfing (without legitimate purpose) of or the promotion of jihadist websites would become a misdemeanor;
- glorification of terrorism on the internet would incur a seven-year prison sentence;
- the police would gain expanded power to shut down internet servers;
- instigating acts of terrorism would become a new misdemeanor under French law;
- the legal definition of “plotting in relation with a terroristic enterprise” is expanded to include those who travel abroad to attend ideological or military training camps.
It is likely that parliament will pass—possibly with some amendments—the proposed law, as a debate on the wisdom of the proposed rules might look like an effort to impede the government from doing what is necessary. How these new dispositions will impact counterterrorism efforts remains to be seen. The new law wades into a complicated territory—how to regulate speech—even if took a prudent approach. The new law uses dispositions that have been deemed constitutional in other domains such as criminalizing the consultation of child pornography websites or the application of the principle of extra-territoriality that enables the French government to prosecute people who engage in sexual tourism abroad even if it is not illegal in the country where they committed the acts. It also finally includes a European directive criminalizing the instigation of a terrorist act into the French legal framework. It is not clear how effective such dispositions might be.
Meanwhile, the government quickly quelled the Socialist Party’s effort to investigate the intelligence services in response to Merah’s attacks. On March 31, the Socialist Party in the senate asked that the internal and external intelligence service chiefs, Erard Corbin de Mangoux and Bernard Squarcini, be questioned by a Senatorial Committee on Legal Affairs. The request fulfilled the Socialist Party’s quest for a greater parliament role in overseeing and controlling the intelligence services. Yet it also was an attempt to support candidate Francois Hollande’s effort to conduct a full assessment of the antiterrorism laws and structures in France in the aftermath of the Merah incident. The government, seeing no reason to give grounds to the main opposition party, flatly refused, arguing that the two officers have no role in assessing antiterrorism laws and that, particularly amid a contentious presidential campaign, they are held to a strict obligation of confidentiality.
Besides adding legislation, Sarkozy’s government does not appear inclined to modify the current structures and services. That could change if Francois Hollande, the Socialist candidate, wins the presidential run-off on May 6, 2012. At this time, the Socialist candidate is predicted to win. Before Merah’s attacks, the Socialist Party was already planning a reform of the intelligence services. Details of this reform plan have not been publicized. It is, however, known that the presumptive Socialist nominee for minister of interior, Francois Rebsamen, met with Bernard Squarcini in Paris to discuss the tenets of a reform of the intelligence services. It is too soon to assess whether or how the most recent revelation on the lost Merah record during the fusion of the RG and the DST into the DCRI will affect the Socialist Party’s plans.
After Mohammed Merah’s killing spree, Francois Hollande gave a few clues as to where he wants to take the intelligence services. They hint at a broader reform than that envisioned by President Sarkozy. Hollande proposed to exert greater control on those who travel to “sensitive countries.” It remains to be seen whether the proposed new legislation is enough for him. He also proposes to increase and improve coordination between the DGSE and the DCRI. Finally, he said that the services needed adequate funding to fully implement the painstaking work of monitoring and surveillance.
Pascale Combelles Siegel is President of Insight Through Analysis, a consultancy firm specializing in strategic communications, military-media, and civil-military relations research, analysis, planning, and assessment. Her work currently focuses on providing analytical support to cultural intelligence and counterterrorism/counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ms. Combelles Siegel has several monographs, chapters and sections in books and official studies. These include a solicited chapter in the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point’s recent Making the Grade: Assessing al-Qa`ida’s Learning and Adaptation, and Target Bosnia, a well-received study of NATO psychological operations and public affairs.
 Marc Semo, “Affaiblie, la nébuleuse passe par des voies détournées,” Libération, November 1, 2010.
 Yves Bordenave and Laurent Borredon, “Questions sur la surveillance de Mohammed Merah par la DCRI,” Le Monde, March 22, 2012; François Heisbourg, “Une commission d’enquête s’impose,” Le Monde, March 29, 2012.
 Laurent Borredon, “L’opération du RAID à Toulouse en cinq questions,” Le Monde, March 22, 2012; “Des ex-militaires israéliens critiquent l’opération menée par le RAID,” Le Monde, March 23, 2012.
 “Toulouse: Juppé évoque une faille du renseignement,” Le Monde, March 22, 2012.
 “La piste d’ex-militaires a fait perdre ‘un temps considerable,’ selon Gérard Longuet,” Le Monde, March 23, 2012.
 “Marine Le Pen: Merah: La partie emerge de l’iceberg,” RTL.fr, March 26, 2012.
 “François Hollande évoque à son tour une ‘faille’ dans la surveillance de Merah,” Le Monde, March 23, 2012.
 Faustine Léo, “Toulouse: La charge de Joly contre Guéant et le pouvoir,” LeParisien.fr, March 22, 2012; “Toulouse: L’UMP et le PS s’accusent tour à tour d’indécence,” Le Monde, March 22, 2012.
 Laurent Borredon and Jacques Fallorou, “Bernard Squarcini: Nous ne pouvions pas aller plus vite,” Le Monde, March 23, 2012.
 Yves Bordenave and Rémy Ourdan, “Bernard Squarcini: La France est la cible nº2 d’Al-Qaeda,” Le Monde, May 7, 2011.
 Emiline Cazi and Ariane Chemin, “Mohammed Merah, l’homme aux cent visages,” Le Monde, March 22, 2012; Gilles Souilles, “Mohammed Merah, Docteur Jeckyll et Mister Hyde,” La Dépêche du Midi, March 22, 2012.
 Borredon and Fallorou.
 Cécile Deffontaines and Olivier Toscer, “Comment le contre-espionnage a égaré la fiche de Merah,” Le Nouvel Observateur, April 18, 2012.
 Borredon and Fallorou.
 Isabelle Monnin, “Mohamed Merah: vie et mort d’un fanatique,” Le Nouvel Observateur, April 3, 2012.
 Deffontaines and Toscer.
 “La stratégie du RAID: purger la dimension d’hyperviolence du suspect,” FranceTV.fr, March 21, 2012.
 “La polémique enfle sur l’assaut du RAID et l’enquête,” Libération, March 22, 2012.
 “Toulouse: Le Fondateur du GIGN critique l’opération du RAID,” Ouest-France, March 22, 2012.
 Floran Vadillo, “Une opération policière trop politisée,” Le Monde, March 29, 2012.
 “Le coup de filet dans les milieux islamistes debouche sur 17 gardes à vue,” Libération, March 30, 2012.
 Jean-Marie Leclerc, “Mercier: Réprimer la provocation au terrorisme,” Le Figaro, April 10, 2012.
 “Renseignements: L’aveu d’impuissance,” Le Monde, March 31, 2012.
 Laurent Borredon, “Le government refuse l’audition des chefs du renseignement par les sénateurs,” Le Monde, March 30, 2012.
 Marcelo Wesfried and Jean-Marie Pontaut, “Rencontre Secrète entre Rebsamen et Squarcini,” L’Express, March 16, 2012.