By Mark Hosenball, Reuters
WASHINGTON — Mohamed Merah, the French gunman who killed Jewish children and French soldiers and then died in a firefight with police this month, was hardly an unknown quantity to intelligence and law enforcement officials on both sides of the Atlantic. Merah made two trips to Afghanistan between 2010 and 2012, and was detained by U.S. forces during the first. He had a record of moderately serious criminal activities in France. He was even interviewed by France’s domestic spy agency, the Central Directorate for Domestic Intelligence, or DCRI, in November 2011, 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? U.S. officials have declined to say why Merah was detained in Afghanistan or what happened to him then, although at some point he was sent back to France. U.S. 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 U.S. 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 United States, as well as aircraft that fly over U.S. 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, say current and former U.S. and European officials and private experts on counterterrorism policy. “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 counter-terrorism issues to former President George W. Bush. Legal Limits, Low Profile
“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,” he said. Zarate noted 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 U.S. congressional committee, he was arrested for overstaying his visa and held in a political prison, where he was interviewed by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. “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, told Reuters that as he understands the case, Merah’s engagement with militants in Afghanistan prompted French authorities to deem him potentially dangerous upon his return. Back in France, however, 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.