Sabtu, 24 Maret 2012

In the Aftermath of the great tragedy in France , questions abound...

Toulouse shootings leave France confused and demanding answers

Questions over whether Mohamed Merah's killing spree could have been prevented put government on the defensive
A French policeman at the apartment where special forces staged an assault on Mohamed Merah in Toulouse. Photograph: Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters
As police in balaclavas and forensic suits pored over the bullet-scarred ground-floor apartment in Toulouse that had been the centre of France's most dramatic gun siege, the country was in a state of shock, grief and, above all, confusion.
For 10 days a gunman on a motorcycle terrorised south-western France, striking first in two attacks on French soldiers, one shot at point-blank range in Toulouse and three more shot days later at a cashpoint in nearby Montauban. Then on Monday the attacker rode up to a Jewish school and shot dead three children and a rabbi, firing an automatic Colt handgun at their temples. He chased one of the victims, a seven-year-old girl, pulled her by the hair and shot her while filming it on a video camera around his neck.
As France launched one of its biggest manhunts, the media speculated that a crazed neo-nazi, perhaps an ex-paratrooper, was behind the attacks in which two of the soldiers killed were Muslim.
The suspect turned out to be Mohamed Merah, a French 23-year-old unemployed panel-beater and convicted juvenile delinquent. He was known to have violent tendencies, lived not far from the two Toulouse crime scenes, claimed allegiance to al-Qaida, and had been under surveillance by security services for years.
How was it possible that police had not picked him up earlier, and could the school massacre have even been avoided? A month before the first round of the French presidential election, these questions raised on the front page of newspapers and on rolling news channels, by opposition politicians and by the relatives of some of the murdered soldiers, have put the government on the defensive.
Merah had been on a police watch-list and was last interviewed by intelligence agents in November to explain a suspect trip to the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, which he said was a holiday. His biometric details were on the US government no-fly list, barring him from boarding any aircraft bound for America. In 2010 a neighbour had filed a legal complaint about him forcing a local teenager to watch violent jihadist propaganda videos, and he was said to have appeared in combat fatigues and threatened the boy's sister with a sword. He had amassed a vast cache of weapons, including at least one Uzi submachine gun and a pump-action shotgun.
Bernard Squarcini, the French intelligence chief who is a key ally of the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, replied to criticism of the slow police response, saying: "We couldn't go any faster." He told Le Monde it was impossible for the police to have foreseen the school attack because Merah claimed he hadn't planned it. "He wanted to kill another soldier but he got there too late. And as he knew the neighbourhood he improvised and attacked the Ozar Hatorah school."
One of the key leads that eventually pointed to Merah dated back to the first attack on 11 March. Imad Ibn-Ziaten, the French Muslim soldier who was Merah's first victim, had placed an advert online to sell a motorbike. A search of computer IP addresses that had consulted the advert threw up the name of Merah's mother, whose two sons were known to the police. But it took days to make the connection. François Fillon, the prime minister, defended the police investigation.
As the political row intensified, the extreme-right Marine Le Pen of the National Front suggested French intelligence may have missed the gunman partly because it had been diverted by Sarkozy's government to snoop on journalists and political opponents. Squarcini is under investigation himself for ordering the illegal surveillance of Le Monde reporters' telephones.
Much of the controversy centres on the siege. Police elite squads arrived at Merah's flat at 3am on Wednesday and tried to break the door down, but he responded with automatic gunfire. For 32 hours, as France was glued to its television sets, police besieged the flat with orders to only take Merah alive. At 11.10am on Thursday an elite squad moved in, unsure if Merah, who had fallen silent, was dead. But he had tricked them, barricaded his flat and was hiding in a bullet-proof vest in his bathroom, up to his shins in water after earlier shooting had burst a pipe. He ran out, opened fire on police and was shot by a sniper as he jumped from the window, still firing. Commentators questioned how it had taken so long to get one suspect who had no hostages, and to fail to bring him to justice alive. The head of a rival elite gendarme unit said Merah should have been blasted with teargas and wouldn't have "lasted five minutes". Police sources dismissed the option as dangerous and illegal.
Much of the detail of the case now focuses on 15 hours of conversation Merah had with police via a walkie-talkie while he was holed up in his flat, extracts of which were made public by the state prosecutor. Merah claimed to be a jihadist trained by al-Qaida. Police described the exchange as his "last testament before dying".
During the siege he asked to speak to a local police chief who had recently interviewed him about his trip to Pakistan. "Anyway I'd been about to call you to tell you I had a tip-off to give you, but it was going to be fake," he said.
French officials on Friday painted a portrait of Merah as a lone wolf, saying there was no sign he was commissioned by al-Qaida and no evidence he had "trained or been in contact with organised groups or jihadists", saying he might have just wanted to latch onto the global "brand". They said he had self-radicalised in prison, where he spent nearly two years as a teenager after stealing a handbag. Merah's lawyer said he been a polite and tolerant teenager, but resentful about that prison sentence and angry at being rejected by the army.
Squarcini said Merah had no "external attributes" of a fundamentalist, although when he had passed through the child courts numerous times for petty crime officials had detected a "psychological fragility", someone who had difficulty accepting his parents' divorce and his father's return to Algeria, where the family had its roots.
Merah's background of petty crime and poor schooling on a housing estate in a drab neighbourhood of Toulouse has catapulted the question of social inequalities and the integration of minorities in France back onto centre stage in the electoral campaign. Some said the social alienation and discrimination felt by second and third generation, ethnic minority French youths must be addressed in the campaign.
"He's French, but in reality he has different origins, doesn't he? France is infested with them," said one elderly architect near the gun siege.
"What Merah did was a repulsive, criminal act, it has nothing to do with Islam," said Medhi Neder, who worked in an advertising firm and knew Merah by sight. "Young people from these neighbourhoods are scared of being stigmatised by this. We're French. If this stops us having a job, stops us walking down the street with our heads held high, turns us in on ourselves because we feel let down by the Republic, that will be hard to repair. This mustn't be used to stigmatise people."
François Bayrou, the centrist presidential candidate, warned of the "worrying state of France", and fragile social cohesion. The election campaign in recent weeks had been slammed as divisive, with Sarkozy accused of courting the anti-immigration extreme right by pushing issues such as halal meat. But Sarkozy shot back at a campaign rally in Strasbourg: "No. There is not a climate in France that can explain these crimes." He said to look for an explanation for this "fanatic act" was "morally unforgivable".
Instead, the president has put the fight against terrorism at the centre of his difficult fight for re-election in the vote in April and May. Already before the attacks some commentators had likened his campaigning style to that of George W Bush in 2004, fighting for re-election by styling himself as the great protector against a danger and threat, which last month was the economic crisis. Now, that danger is terrorism, as it was for Bush, and Sarkozy was quick to promise a raft of new anti-terrorist laws including an internet clampdown. His ruling rightwing party has also attacked the Socialist frontrunner François Hollande for not prioritising issues of security and fighting crime. Hollande, who said any "failings" in the Merah operation must be examined, told a rally it was wrong to say the left was lax on crime and the right was exemplary at fighting it.


The murderous rampage that ended with the dramatic death of Islamist gunman Mohamed Merah on Thursday has prompted a bout of soul-searching in France, where the media are leading the quest for answers.

By Ben MCPARTLAND (text)
A day after the siege of Toulouse gunman Mohamed Merah came to a dramatic and violent end, the front page of French newspaper Libération presented a list of seven questions it wanted answered.
The left-wing daily summed up the mood in the French media in the aftermath of the 32-hour stand-off between the self-proclaimed Islamist extremist and police commandos.
The inquisition into events which ended with 23-year-old Merah being shot in the head as he launched himself over his balcony wall gun in hand has begun in earnest and recriminations are coming thick and fast.
Top of the agenda for the French press on Friday was the tactics used by the elite police commandos from the aptly named RAID division, during the 32-hour siege.
'No tactical plan'
Paris prosecutor and chief investigator Francois Molins told the media shortly after the end of the siege that “everything had been done to take Merah alive”.
But that statement was ridiculed by Christian Prouteau, founder of Groupement d'intervention de la gendarmerie nationale (GIGN), a special elite operations unit of the military.

Mohamed Merah’s claims to police that he had links to international terror network al Qaeda were undermined by authorities in France on Friday.
A senior official "close to the investigation" told AP there was no evidence suggesting the Toulouse gunman "had been trained or been in contact with organised groups or Jihadists”.
Interior Minister Claude Gueant also sought to portray the gunman as a self-radicalised terrorist who acted alone, describing him as a “lone wolf”.
Merah told police of his links to al Qaeda in the early stages of the 32-hour standoff which ended with his death on Thursday morning.

“How did the best police unit not manage to take one man?” Prouteau asked in an interview with the regional paper Ouest France, and which was widely picked up by other publications.
“They should have used tear gas, it would have taken no longer than five minutes,” added the former soldier. “Instead they just tossed in a load of grenades which pushed the gunman into a state of mind to continue his war. It seems the operation was conducted without a specific tactical plan. That was the problem.”
Libération focused instead on the start of the stand-off and the first failed attempt to take Merah alive at 3am on Wednesday morning.
When officers smashed through the door of his apartment, Merah was armed and waiting. He opened fire, leaving two commandoes wounded, and forced the RAID team to retreat for the next 32 hours.
Liberation questioned whether Merah could have been snared in a trap before he realised police were onto him.
“The killer did not know the police had tracked him down. They should have put three of our guys in the apartment block concealed near his door and waited for him to leave,” a police source told Libération.
Inadequate surveillance
While the French public are asking whether Merah should have been identified earlier in his killing spree, the media are focusing on the time before Merah had fired his first bullet in anger on March 11.


The role of France’s intelligence services are firmly in the spotlight after it emerged Merah had been under surveillance since 2011 and even questioned by agents after returning from a trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the same year.
According to Claude Gueant, Merah told secret service agents he had been to the war-torn zone and the home of terrorist training camps on a “tourist visit”.
The headline “Questions about the surveillance of Mohamed Merah” in centre-left daily Le Mondewas a theme echoed throughout the French media on Friday.
Le Monde noted that Merah had been portrayed by the authorities as “a lone wolf”, which a source in the intelligence services said presents “the most difficult exercise for us”.
Le Monde accepted that answer as “credible”. However the paper noted that revelations that Merah’s brother’s name showed up during a police investigation into a group who were encouraging jihadists to go and fight in Iraq could “undermine” the official explanation.
In his blog on RTL website, Christopher Giltay sums up the mood in France when he says “There needs to be a serious debriefing at the top of the secret services.”
Islamic threat underestimated?


After the events in Toulouse, France is now more familiar with the term "home-grown terrorist". The fact that Merah was born and brought up in Toulouse before turning on his community has shaken France to the core, just as Britain was left traumatized by its own home-grown terrorists in the London bombings of July 2007.
With France being home to around 6 million Muslims - Western Europe’s largest Muslim population - the country’s press is also wondering whether towns and suburbs across the country could be home to more Mohamed Merahs?
“That question needs to be put forward to the intelligence services,” said Sara Daniel, a reporter for the weekly news magazine Nouvel Observateur and a specialist on Islamic extremism, in an interview with 20minutes.
“I am surprised that this has not happened before now,” she added. "There are groups of people who are against the West and the Jewish community and against France, after the stories about the [banning of] the veil in 2004. It’s surprising that we have had so few extremists in France.”
International attention
The fallout from Mohammed Merah’s murderous acts in Toulouse has naturally spread beyond France’s borders.
The eyes of the world’s media have been focused on southwestern France in recent days, as the drama reached its violent end Thursday, and commentators in the international media have been asking the same questions as their French counterparts.
Top-selling Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot included a scathing opinion piece by former special forces officer Lior Lotan under the title “Operation Failure”.
“The French security forces failed in their mission,” he wrote.
Writing in British daily The Independent, Adrian Hamiltonchastised politicians and experts as “obscene” for focusing on the impact Mohamed Merah will now have on the upcoming presidential elections in France.
Despite labelling France a “deeply racist country”, Hamilton believes the national enquiry being played through the French press and beyond should keep the deadly events of Toulouse in context.
“There is far too much talk about grander themes of race relations, ethnic differences and religious motivations, and far too little acceptance of the simple fact that these cases are uncommon, they have always occurred through history and society's best defence remains good policing, not draconian legislation,” he said.

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