A retrospective of the failure of French domestic intelligence following the Merah trial.
By Adrien Morin
In March 2012, Mohammed Merah, a 23-year old Franco-Algerian, carried out a series of attacks in the cities of Toulouse and Montauban, in Southwestern France. The attacks resulted in the death of three soldiers and four civilians, including three children from a Jewish school. Merah was then killed a few days later in his apartment during an assault conducted by police special forces from the Search, Assistance, Intervention, Deterrence (RAID) unit.
The young killer taped his attack with a GoPro camera before sending the footage edited with Islamic war songs to the French Police and the Arabic TV network Al-Jazeera, a modus operandi that later became popular among self-proclaimed jihadists of the Islamic State. Approximately three years before the wave of terrorist attacks that struck France and the European continent beginning from 2015, Mohammed Merah became a pioneer of whom we commonly refer to as “lone-wolf terrorists” today (alongside Mehdi Nemmouche, who also murdered four people in a Jewish Museum in Brussels in 2014).
The Merah case resurfaced more than five years later, during the five-weeks long trial of Abdelkader Merah, Mohammed’s brother, and Fettah Malki, a friend of the killer who supplied the Uzi submachine gun used during the attacks. The former was sentenced to 20 years on charges of conspiracy in terrorism crimes while the latter received a 14-year sentence on similar charges.
Merah’s journey into violent jihad
Among all the testimonies of the trial, one has drawn particular attention: the one of Christian Balle-Audui, former regional director of domestic intelligence in the Toulouse area. Before the court, the retired police officer explained how Mohammed Merah was well-known to his service, years before going on his deadly rampage in 2012.
Several members of the Merah family were being monitored by the French intelligence services in the 2000s for their association with radical Islamist networks. Mohammed himself had been incarcerated on multiple occasions for various acts of delinquency, and came under tight scrutiny by the domestic intelligence service after his release in 2009 for his ties with radical Salafi networks. Merah was a close acquaintance of the Clain brothers (Fabien and Jean Michel) and Sabri Essid (who is also his step brother), three high-profile French jihadists who left the country to wage jihad in the Middle East and ultimately joined the Islamic State. They were themselves members of the “Artigat jihadi cell,” founded in the ‘80s in the Toulouse area by Olivier Corel, a Syrian-born Salafi preacher who immigrated to France in the ‘70s. The “White Emir”, as he is known in the media, has extensive connections with individuals involved in terrorist attacks in France in recent years. Corel also admitted meeting with Merah shortly before his attack.
Between 2010 and 2011, Mohammed Merah visited Syria, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Afghanistan and Pakistan, to perfect his religious education, meet with members of jihadi networks, and receive military training (among Taliban fighters in Miranshah, North Waziristan). Interrogated by the French police upon his return from Afghanistan, Merah duped the investigators by explaining that his journey through Central Asia was simply for the purpose of meeting with the family of a woman he planned to marry. However, he had allegedly been questioned by the American NSA while in Central Asia, being suspected of having close ties with Taliban fighters. Unfortunately, this information will only be shared with the French intelligence community a day after the death of Mohammed Merah.
What can be learned from the Merah case?
As French terrorism expert Gilles Kepel reminds us in his 2015 book ‘Terreur dans l’Hexagone. Genèse du djihad français,’ the term “lone-wolf terrorist” hardly describes Mohammed Merah. Even if the young French jihadi acted alone in March 2012, the journey leading to his rampage on the streets of Toulouse and Montauban was heavily influenced and assisted by a myriad of actors of the jihadi sphere: from his direct family connections in France to Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This life path is recurrent among the radicalized self-proclaimed jihadi fighters who struck France and Europe in recent years. This can highlight a pattern to identify terrorism networks and dangerous individuals.
These red flags were quite obvious months before Mohammed Merah carried out his attack in March 2012, but French domestic intelligence fell short of stopping the young man in time. Christian Balle-Audui asked for the judicialization of the Merah case in June 2011, based on the information he had about the social ties and travels of Mohammed Merah, but his request was denied by his superiors, and the young jihadist slowly slipped under the radar. In fact, back then, Merah was even considered a possible candidate to become an informant for the French police. During the Merah trial, the former regional director of domestic intelligence explained, that the “error of appreciation” comes from an “extremely hierarchical management.” This essentially means that the information collected, along with the recommendations transmitted by regional units of the intelligence community, are not necessarily always regarded with enough consideration by the central direction.
Additionally, if the NSA did question Mohammed Merah during his trip to Central Asia, a better cooperation and intelligence sharing between American and French intelligence agencies could have helped prevent the deadly attack.
In any case, a better intelligence sharing among various units of the French intelligence community, as well as with intelligence agencies of other countries will be key in preventing future attacks by individuals with ties to jihadi networks. Let’s hope the Merah case, along with the other recent attacks perpetrated across the Old Continent, will be lessons learned for France and its neighbors in Europe.
Cover Picture: scene outside the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school after Merah’s attack, © Oak Ridge National Laboratory / Wikimedia Commons