Friday, March 23, 2012

Mohammed Merah shootings a wake-up call for France

France remains on edge following the shooting of the suspect believed responsible for the shooting dead of seven people over the last few weeks. Mohammed Merah was shot dead after a siege of more than 32 hours holed up in an apartment in Toulouse. But while it has been hailed as a successful operation, there are many unanswered questions, least of all whether the self-styled al-Qaeda terrorist was acting alone.

Intelligence failures

There is growing criticism that the authorities failed to act sooner in reeling in the man who had been flagged several times and placed on a watch list.

On Thursday French officials admitted that Merah had been followed by intelligence agencies for years and that as recently as November 2011 he was questioned by France's DCRI domestic intelligence agency to explain his trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Merah is said to have been a member of a small extremist Islamist group run by his brother which security services believed was 'harmless'.

It has also emerged that Merah was arrested by US authorities in Afghanistan in 2008, apparently after being caught planting bombs for the Taliban, and sent home to France. He was also placed on the US no-fly list. French authorities however seemed less proactive.

French prime minister François Fillon attempted to explain away the authorities' inaction by saying they had no legitimate reason to detain Merah. "There was no single element allowing us to detain Mohamed Merah," Fillon told a French radio station. "We don't have the right in a country like ours to permanently monitor without judicial authorisation someone who hasn't committed an offence ... We live in a state of law."

Political fallout

However the fallout from the whole saga is likely to have dramatic implications. Security and the threat of terrorism has now been pushed to the top of the agenda as president Sarkozy continues in his bid for a second term in office at the upcoming presidential election which is little more than a month away.

Nicolas Sarkozy's election campaign has been transformed by the shootings of three soldiers, a rabbi and three children. His statesmanlike role during the crisis as a dependable crime fighter has pushed him into the lead against Socialist rival François Hollande and widened the gap between himself and the far-Right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen [Telegraph / Guardian].

However, with issues over border controls and immigration likely to feature in debates over the coming days, it is too early to tell if Sarkozy will maintain his dominant position. Both Hollande and Le Pen will exploit the recent crisis and the authorities' failure to arrest Merah sooner.

Successful operation

The operation to capture Merah was, in some ways, successful. He was brought down without any further loss of life, though several police officers were injured. However, his death will leave many wondering whether he was acting alone or if he was part of a larger terror cell.

This was certainly not '24', the American television series which followed the exploits of the fictitious Counter Terrorist Unit which sought to foil terror plots. It had taken ten days to home in on the killer since he began his shooting spree, and even after closing in on the suspect the operation did not conclude until a full 32 hours later. Having been killed, rather than taken into custody, any leads to other cells died with him.

The attacks

The first attack occurred on 11th March, when a French paratrooper, Master Sergeant Imad Ibn-Ziaten, also a French Muslim, was shot dead outside of a gym in Toulouse. The second incident occurred on 15th March, during which two uniformed soldiers, Corporal Abel Chennouf, and Private Mohamed Legouad, were killed and another seriously injured in a shopping centre in Montauban.

Media attention had been mainly confined to the French press, but when four people, including three children, were slain at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish day school on the 19th March all eyes became focused on the town of Toulouse with speculation over the motive of the killer.

Media speculation

Some had suggested that the killings were racially motivated, given the soldiers were of mixed race and that Jews were also targeted. The fact that one of the soldiers was a Muslim seemed to dispel the theory that the killer was an Islamic terrorist, though this is a fact that may not have been known to the assailant.

Within hours of the shooting at the Jewish school police closed in on the suspect and laid siege to his apartment in a small suburban street in Toulouse. In the early hours of 21st March Merah allegedly telephoned the television channel France 24, telling a journalist that he had filmed the murders and that he intended to post the footage online. At 03:00 local time [02:00 UTC], the French police tried to arrest Merah at his apartment on Sergent Vigné Street in the Côte Pavée neighbourhood. Merah shot at the police through the door, injuring three police officers. A siege then ensued with authorities attempting to talk the suspect into giving himself up.


During negotiations Merah claimed he was a member of al-Qaeda and said he had killed the soldiers in revenge for French involvement in Afghanistan and said he had attacked the Jewish school to "avenge Palestinian children".

After wearing down the suspect with explosions police stormed the flat at around 10:30 on Thursday morning. A firefight ensued with Merah apparently exiting the bathroom wearing a bulletproof jacket "shooting madly" according to French Interior Minister Claude Gueant. He then jumped from the window of the apartment and was shot in the head by a police sniper.

Well armed

Merah had been armed with an AK-47, an Uzi, several handguns and possibly grenades, according to reports. Further weapons were also found in a rented Renault Megane parked near the apartment building. In addition Merah had exchanged a Colt 45 for a mobile phone during the siege. The large arsenal of weapons will undoubtedly raise questions as to how he obtained them and what support he had.

Al Jazeera reported that one of Merah's brothers had been arrested, and that another had handed himself into custody. Their involvement is not yet clear, though it seems certain that Merah was not acting entirely alone.

Terror threat

France has perhaps only now woken up to the fact that a terror threat exists within its borders. In fact some commentators have aired their surprise that the country has not been the target of a serious terrorist attack until now. Writing in the Jerusalem Post,  Pinchas Landay says the latest incident is a wake-up call for France, and that no-one should be entirely shocked by events given the rise of anti-Semitism in the country.

But simplifying the attack to motives of anti-Semitism ignores the underlying threat argues Robert Sibley who wrote a piece in the Ottawa Citizen. He is particularly scathing of the media pundits and politicians who initially blamed a "right-wing wacko" for the killings at a Jewish school. Sibley also condemned the jump to conclusions and the apparent excusing of the killings by apportioning blame to lax immigration, even when it became clear the killer was a Muslim.

Sibley cites an article by Ed West, a journalist with the Daily Telegraph, who went so far as to assure his readers that the Toulouse shootings had nothing to do with Islam. "Islam is not to blame for the Toulouse killings," West wrote, arguing that the blame for terrorism resides with westerners whose societies don't make Muslims feel comfortable. In West's words, "It is not religion that turns some young Muslim men in the West violent, but the sense of alienation and frustration that inevitably comes from being a second-generation immigrant."

In other words, Sibley says, the West is to blame for Muslims not feeling at home, and because they don't feel at home it's understandable that they'd have to murder Jewish children and rabbis to feel better about themselves. "This is nonsense, of course, blaming the victim for his victimhood," Sibley lambasts.

Wake-up call

The Western media will no doubt double-back on such views. Instead, many are now looking at the mistakes made by the French intelligence services and whether Sarkozy's political campaign will suffer. The mistakes made must undoubtedly be established and lessons must be learned. But this incident must serve as a wake-up call not only to France but other countries who have thus far been complacent to the threat of terrorism, both home-grown or coming from abroad.

Links: Mohammed Merah - Wikipedia / 2012 Midi-Pyrénées shootings - Wikipedia / BBC / Sky / Telegraph / Daily Mail / French media: Liberation / Le Monde / La Figaro]

tvnewswatch, London, UK

No comments: