The Terror of Toulouse: How Much Did the French Know About a Spree Shooter?

A year after Toulouse jihadi Mohammed Merah began a killing campaign that claimed seven lives, France marks the death of his first victim amid new indications that domestic intelligence services missed clear signs of the threat he posed

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ERIC CABANIS / AFP / Getty Images

A soldier holds a portrait of late French parachutist Imad Ibn Ziaten, the first victim of Islamist gunman Mohamed Merah, on March 11, 2013, in the French town of Toulouse during a ceremony awarding him with a posthumous medal, Legion d'Honneur

On March 11, a one-year memorial was held for French parachutist Imad Ibn Ziaten, the first death in an eight-day-long shooting spree in Toulouse and nearby Montauban that ended with a total of seven victims killed — including three children at a Jewish day school. The shooter, Mohammed Merah, had targeted Ibn Ziaten to punish France for its participation in battling the Taliban in Afghanistan. But 12 months after the series of attacks — which concluded with Merah’s own death after a 32-hour siege — the country is still learning details about the self-proclaimed al-Qaeda member’s transformation from petty hood to violent jihadist. Perhaps most disturbing among those revelations are indications that the nation’s domestic intelligence agency identified Merah as a potential security risk as early as 2007, yet failed to prevent the mass killings of March 2012.

The latest evidence arose March 10, when the regional French channel France 3 Midi-Pyrénées revealed documents showing security forces had begun taking notice of Merah’s ties to extremists in Toulouse as early as October 2006. Though that initial file focused mainly on the higher-profile militants that Merah was in contact with, it did contain a photo of the smiling 18-year-old holding a Koran in one hand and a large knife in the other. By May 2007, the France 3 report noted, a second brief devoted primarily to Merah described the youth as a “radical jihadi” who “recently joined this [Salafi] movement” police had infiltrated.

(MORE: France’s Benghazi: Was the Case of Mohammed Merah Bungled?)

That online report came ahead of France 3’s March 11 broadcast of a documentary casting additional doubt on the official theory that Merah had been a lone wolf who’d prepared and carried out his three gun attacks alone — making detection by security forces nearly impossible. That version has been fiercely defended by authorities in former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative government, who deny that lax oversight was in any way responsible for Merah’s deadly spree. That position has been challenged by families of victims, investigative journalists, and even members of the security forces, who argue that the intelligence services underestimated the threat Merah represented. That has come atop evidence that officials allowed themselves to be fooled by the aspiring jihadi about his activities and contacts during his 2011 trip to Pakistan.

Identified by intelligence agencies during two different trips to Pakistan, Merah told investigators in France that his final visit in 2011 — just months before his killing campaign began — had been dedicated to tourism and his search for a wife. Indeed, during his negotiations with police during the siege leading up to his death, Merah mocked the intelligence agent who had questioned him upon his return from Pakistan in October 2011. He said, rather than sightseeing and looking for a marriage match, he had visited what he said were al-Qaeda handlers, receiving instruction and training for the gun attacks. Evidence has also emerged in the year since Merah had far more contacts with suspected radicals than initially thought and had used evasive measures to telephone them without being detected.

In comments earlier this month, France’s Socialist Interior Minister Manuel Valls acknowledged that his predecessors had made “errors, failings, and faults” in handling Merah. Critics denounced Valls’ allegations of intelligence failure by conservatives in the Merah case as the same kind of political exploitation of terrorism that Sarkozy was accused of employing to boost his failed 2012 re-election bid.

Despite mounting indication that intelligence failure played some a role in Merah’s ability to begin his killing spree and remain at large for nearly two weeks before being neutralized, even some French antiterrorism officials who’ve been critical of Merah’s case warn against an overly simplified reading of it in hindsight. “There was without doubt a failure to include all specialized forces available, a failure of [security] services involved to communicate between themselves, and at some point a human failure of analyzing and appreciating how great a threat Merah had become,” says one senior antiterrorism official who asked not to be named for security purposes. “Merah is an example of how the terror threat is evolving from organized, relatively structured networks you can identify and watch to one where individual militants make glancing contact with mentors and supporters before bouncing back off on their own — and later going into action. That’s a far more difficult kind of threat to identify and keep track of. And that’s the lesson to be learned from the Merah case.”

(MORE: France Holds 7 Suspects Thought to Be in a ‘Terrorism Cell’)