How did French intelligence track down Mohammed Merah, the presumed responsible for last week's slayings in and around Toulouse? Agency director Bernard Squarcini walks Le Monde through two years of surveillance and shares some of Merah'
In an exclusive interview with Le Monde, Bernard Squarcini, director of the French domestic intelligence agency, offers vivid new details about the hunt for and deadly two-day standoff with Mohammed Merah. Squarcini also provides more insight into the background of Merah, the presumed killer of three French soldiers and three children and a teacher at a Jewish school in Toulouse. It was November 2010 when he first appeared on the radar of French intelligence services.
On Thursday, Foreign Minister Alain Juppé said "I understand that you could ask yourself the question of whether or not there were mistakes." Is that a criticism of your department?
The meaning of that phrase has been taken out of context. People, including children, died in a particularly cruel way, so we are certainly asking ourselves the questions like - Could we have done it differently? Did we miss something? Were we fast enough? But it was impossible to say, on Sunday evening, "It is Merah, we have to catch him." He himself hadn't planned to attack the Jewish school on Monday morning. According to his declarations during the raid, he had planned to kill another soldier, but he arrived too late. Since he knew the neighborhood well, he improvised and decided to attack Ozar-Hatorah (school).
Mohammed Merah spoke with you during the raid and siege?
He wanted to speak with the officer from the regional intelligence service with whom he'd spoken in November 2011. The officer arrived during the negotiations, and Mohammed seemed to trust him. He confided in him, he cooperated with him. He told us where the scooter and the two cars were. The rapport was good, but not without cynicism. He even told the officer, "Anyway, I should have called you to tell you that I had a tip for you, but in reality, I was going to demolish you." He was very two-faced.
You have to go back to his troubled childhood and his psychiatric problems. To have done what he did, there are really more signs that he suffered from a medical problem, delusions, than that he was a simple jihadist. According to the officer who had spoken with him in November, it was the second part of his personality who spoke on Wednesday. He spoke of a second section of his life, a part of his life that he had not wanted to reveal when he was interviewed in November. In a way, he completed the second half of that interview.
When did you start investigating the death of the soldiers?
Internal intelligence began working with the police on Friday, March 16 (the day after the shootings). On Saturday evening, they sent us data to insert with our own documentation. The intelligence service worked all weekend, looking at T-Max (the brand of scooter the shooter was seen using) owners, 11.43 caliber gun owners, frequent customers at shooting ranges and names connected to the IP addresses that viewed the ad the first soldier had placed for a scooter on a common on-line classified ad site. We had 24,000 data points in total. At that time, we were pursuing the theory of a connection to the extreme-right, jihadists or just someone who was insane.
On Tuesday, March 20, you started focusing in on Mohammed Merah.
During our strategic meetings, the intelligence services underlined that he could correspond to the profile that we were after. But it was necessary to question the mother, Adbelkader Merah (Mohammed's brother) and Mohammed. And then it was necessary to convince a judge to authorize a night search. Since these were presumed Islamists, we had to act before the first morning prayers.
Did you still think, at that time, that it might not be him?
Yes, it could have been someone related to him. We were not certain at that time.
He wasn't the victim of a radicalizing gang in prison?
He seems to have gotten radicalized on his own.
He had an unusual personality then?
He did not show any obvious fundamentalist attributes. When convicted by the juvenile court, a slight psychological weakness was detected. He didn't cope very well with his parents' divorce, and his father returned to Algeria. He had a very particular relationship with his mother. He lived off odd jobs, which he kept for a month, a month-and-a-half. It was actually his mother who covered his costs. And he also told us through the door on Wednesday that it was his business and his small thefts that allowed him to save up and buy guns.
When did you first get word of him?
After a simple road check in Kandahar, Afganistan in November 2010, which was carried out by the Afghan police. They handed him over to the Americans, who forced him to take a plane back to Kabul. One of the French non-armed intelligence services made us aware of the incident.
What did he do during this first trip?
He traveled to the Middle East, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and even Israel, before spending time with his brother in Cairo. In Jerusalem, the police found a penknife in his bag but released him. Then he traveled to Afghanistan via Tadjikistan. He took unusual routes and passed under our radar, evading the American, local and external French services as well. In 2010, he arrived in Kabul on Nov. 13. He was stopped on Nov. 22 in Kandahar, and returned to France on Dec. 5.
What happened to him after that?
We carried out an investigation to see what we could find out about him. But there was nothing. No ideological activism, no regular visits to the mosque.
Why did you call him in for questioning in the autumn of 2011?
Because we wanted to gather further information about his trip to Afghanistan. It was an interview for information only, as we were not undertaking a judicial enquiry into the matter.
Did he agree to it without any problems?
The civil servant who interviewed him did not feel that he tried to avoid answering, quite the contrary. Mohammed Merah phoned on Oct. 13, 2011, as he was not in France at that time, but in Pakistan. "As soon as I'm back, I will contact you," he said. On Nov. 3 he phoned again from Purpan hospital where he had been admitted with hepatitis. "As soon as I'm out of here, I will come and see you," he assured them. He showed excellent cooperation, manners and courtesy.
He brought his USB stick to the interview with photos of his travels on it. He asked to lie down on the table while talking because he was ill, he said. He used the photos to explain the tourist route that he took to the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Did his second trip to Pakistan not worry you?
He only stayed in Pakistan for two months. He said he was looking for a wife. During the siege by RAID the French SWAT team, he told us he had gone to Waziristan a region in northwest Pakistan and that there were other French citizens like him there. But at the time, neither the Pakistani services, nor the Americans, nor the French General Directorate for External Security alerted us.
Where did he learn to fight?
He told RAID that he had received individual training in Waziristan from just one person.
Has this case changed your way of thinking about Islamists?
It's obvious that there could be other solitary actors like Mohammed Merah out there. That is the fear of every intelligence service, but it does not fundamentally change our way of thinking about terrorism.
Are you afraid that this case will be exploited politically?
These aren't right-wing or left-wing problems. These are technical problems. We are relieved to have found him. Unfortunately, there were innocent victims, but there could have been more. We could not have acted faster. But we wish we could have.
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Photo - France2