Mohammed Merah, the French gunman who killed Jewish children and French soldiers, then died in a firefight with police this month, was hardly an unknown quantity to intelligence and law enforcement officials on either side of the Atlantic.
Merah made two trips to Afghanistan between 2010 and this year and he was detained by US forces during the first. He had a record of moderately serious criminal activity in France. He was even interviewed by France’s domestic spy agency, the Central Directorate for Domestic Intelligence in November last year following his trips to South Asia.
With so many red flags, how was he able to roam the streets freely — and assemble a formidable cache of weapons — in France?
US officials have declined to say why Merah was detained in Afghanistan or what happened to him, although at some point he was sent back to France.
US officials certainly had enough intelligence about his visits to militants in Afghanistan to put him on the “no-fly” list, the most restrictive of a set of US databases designed to monitor and control potentially dangerous suspects.
Being on that list, Merah would have been barred from boarding planes that take off and land in the US, as well as aircraft that overfly US territory.
Merah’s case is just the latest to demonstrate the limits of intelligence gathering and analysis, and the use of that information against potentially, but not actively, violent suspects living in a democratic society, current and former US and European officials and private experts on counterterrorism policy say.
“The ability of Western law enforcement or intelligence services to prevent terrorist attacks from fellow citizens, who have settled back home without acting on their intent to attack, is fraught with complications and limitations,” said Juan Zarate, a former senior adviser on counterterrorism issues to former US president George W. Bush. “For all the concerns about law enforcement overreach after 9/11, the reality is that the detention of suspect citizens absent an overt act of criminality — merely based on associations or speech — is not legal.”
Zarate said that while legal systems in France and Spain give authorities “much more flexibility” to pick up and hold suspects on looser evidence of involvement with militants, “there are still limitations dictated by law and democratic practices.”
Zarate recalled another case of a “lone wolf” militant with many parallels to Merah’s.
In 2009, Carlos Bledsoe killed an army private and wounded another soldier outside a military recruiting office in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Before then, Bledsoe had traveled to Yemen. There, according to testimony by his father to a US congressional committee, he was arrested for overstaying his visa and held in a political prison, where he was interviewed by the FBI.
“He returned home, was monitored, but ultimately woke up one morning and decided to kill army recruiters,” Zarate said.
Jean-Louis Bruguiere, a former magistrate who was France’s top counterterrorism investigator and still consults for security agencies, said that as he understands the case, Merah’s engagement with militants in Afghanistan prompted French authorities to deem him potentially dangerous upon his return.
However, back in France, he did not conspicuously hang out with people suspected of planning violence. This made it legally difficult for French authorities to detain him, Bruguiere said.