French Anti-Terror Raids Leave Extremist Suspect Dead

Multiple French sweeps leave a Salafist suspect dead after gunfight with police, and mark a return to France's multi-discipline counter-terror system over the all-intelligence model of former President Nicolas Sarkozy

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A policeman of the GIPN (French national police internvention groups) stands guard in front of a building as other GIPN members conduct an anti-terrorist operation, on Oct. 6, 2012 in Cannes, southeastern France.

French special forces shot and killed suspect Islamist extremist Oct. 6 in an exchange of gunfire during a dawn raid in the eastern city of Strasbourg. The action was as part of a daybreak series of sweeps targeting alleged Salafist radicals, and followed an investigation into the Sept. 19 grenade attack of a Kosher grocery store in a Paris suburb that occurred amid international outrage among Muslim fundamentalists to a mocking film and French caricatures they called blasphemous to Islam.

But the police action also came amid continuing debate about intelligence failure and other irregularities that may have allowed self-proclaimed Toulouse jihadi Mohammed Merah to execute his March, 2012 murder spree that left seven people dead. Though French counter-terrorism officials have recently told TIME they’ve seen no signs of imminent terror planning by extremists since Merah’s death, Saturday’s multiple sweeps may be indication that security forces and political leaders are learning the lessons of the Merah case by moving early and emphatically against any suspected radical considered even a potential threat.

Though details of Saturday’s sweeps were still sketchy ahead of a press conference planned by justice authorities later in the day, the fatal Strasbourg raid is known to have been part of a coordinated series of moves on suspected extremists. Those raids occurred in Nice, Cannes, and locations around Paris, resulting in the arrest of 10 people. It now seems clear officials were justified viewing some suspects as security threats. During the raid of a Strasbourg apartment, the suspect unloaded his .375 Magnum revolver on advancing police forces before being killed in return fire. Three police officers were slightly injured in the exchange, including one who took direct hits to anti-ballistic gear protecting his head and chest. In a coinciding operation near Paris, a suspect that unnamed officials in some reports termed “dangerous” was taken without violence, but found in possession of at least one gun.

The raids came as French counter-terror authorities continue their investigation into the Sept. 19 attack of a kosher shop serving the large Jewish population in Sarcelles, a disadvantaged and ethnically diverse suburb north of Paris. One person was slightly injured in that strike when an explosive device was thrown inside the store. That attack came amid the surge of anger and violence among Islamist militants around the globe in reaction to a California-made film denigrating the Prophet Muhammad and French print media caricatures mocking Islam—a wave of fury that now appears to be subsiding.

Despite those apparently calming tempers France’s leftist government is signaling that it will tolerate no defiance or challenge from Islamist militants—even if that comes in response to provocation. France’s Socialist Interior Minister Manuel Valls banned demonstrations by groups denouncing the film and caricatures that they consider blasphemous to Islam. Furthermore, on Sept. 27 Valls used a ceremony for the opening of a new mosque—in Strasbourg, as it happened—to put militant Salafists and fellow traveling fundamentalists on notice that he’d brook now challenge to French laws or secular traditions.

“I will not accept behavior by Salafists or any other group that defies the Republic,” Valls warned during Strasbourg mosque inauguration. “The Republic will be intransigent with anyone who seeks to challenge it.”

That hard line is in part an effort by French Socialists who took control of government in elections last May and June to disprove accusations from ousted conservatives that the left is soft on crime and security. It’s also a reflection of the reputation Valls earned as mayor of a disadvantaged and troubled Paris suburb for being tough on law-and-order issues–a stand so rigid that some disapproving leftists accuse him of being a conservative in all but name. But the intransigence with suspected Islamist extremists and sympathizing enablers also marks a move by Socialist President François Hollande to learn from possible errors in the Merah case to prevent future terror activity.

French intelligence services continue facing accusations they repeatedly overlooked evidence Merah was a dedicated jihadi determined to carry a strike in France. In that process, detractors say, intelligence officials not only passed up opportunities to unmask and arrest Merah before he went into action, but were then slow to consider him as a suspect once he had. On at least one occasion, those services also ignored–inadvertently, it seems–information provided by other security forces about Merah’s radical associations and potential as a threat.

Those allegations also carry a degree of political accusation. French security officials tell TIME France’s domestic intelligence service was given its dominating role in France’s anti-terror effort–often to the expense or exclusion of the nation’s other specialized units–by former conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy. Shortly after his election in 2007, Sarkozy not only combined several parallel and at times competing intelligence units into the bigger, far more powerful outfit it is now–but also tapped some of his most trusted allies to run it.

Since Hollande’s victory, the security officials say, moves have been made to bring the full range of specialized intelligence, investigative, judicial, and police services back into what has been France’s unique and centralized anti-terror model since the 1990s. As a result, that broader perspective and diverse experience may be coming up with different analyses and strategies of how to best fight the terror threat–including views about moving on people some units identify as even potential dangers earlier in the game. If so, Saturday’s raid may be both a reflection of that change–and an indication no one in France’s security or political system is willing to brave future accusations of having of being slow on the uptake or tardy to act again.