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France seeks answers as terror attacks marked

Joshua Melvin · 19 Mar 2014, 12:12

Published: 19 Mar 2014 12:12 GMT+01:00

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French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault will be in Toulouse on Wednesday for a ceremony to remember the three Jewish children, a rabbi and three French paratroopers gunned down in one of modern France's worst terror incidents and its worst attack on Jews since the Holocaust.

But as Ayrault joins in a ceremony for the four victims killed at the Ozar Atorah Jewish school on March 19th, 2012 as well as the three paratroopers gunned down in the days prior, several key questions about the attack remain unresolved.

France’s domestic intelligence agency, the Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur (DCRI), faces a preliminary judicial investigation on charges it “failed to prevent a crime” and “endangering the lives of others” because it failed to stop the self-proclaimed Al-Qaeda-inspired gunman. 

At a memorial service in Toulouse on last year's anniversary, President François Hollande vowed that the victims' families would receive the truth.

"Could this tragedy have been avoided? Did Merah act alone or was he a member of a larger network?" asked Hollande. "The families and the whole of France are owed these answers. I will guarantee they get them."

"The state must do everything to help shed light on these questions and we must know the shortcomings of the services involved."

Merah was known to intelligence services

Merah, who was of Algerian descent, claimed the killings were a reaction to western aggression against Muslims and had been prompted because the "Jews kill our brothers and sisters in Palestine."

In the days after Merah was shot dead by a police sniper outside his Toulouse apartment on March 22nd, 2012, capping a 30-hour standoff with police, it emerged he had long been known to and watched by French authorities for his Islamist connections.

He had first come to the attention of the DCRI in 2006 for his ties to a radical Islamist group in Toulouse. His subsequent trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2011 worried investigators enough that they asked superiors in Paris for permission to investigate him.

Agents watched and interviewed Merah, but by February 2012 decided he wasn’t enough of a threat to warrant further surveillance. They even considered recruiting him as an informant, it emerged.

The search for accomplices goes on

In the mean time he had assembled a veritable arsenal of handguns, assault rifles and ammunition in his apartment. Then two months later the killings began on March 11th, 2012 with the slaying of a Muslim paratrooper.

In all three paratroopers were gunned down in Toulouse and the nearby town of Montauban and then came the attack on the Jewish school, which sent shock waves around France and the rest of the world.

The question that has concerned authorities since the attack is did Merah act alone and if not, then who helped him?

In the wake of the ceaseless reviews of the case, three people have been charged with helping Merah carry out the attacks, including his brother Abdelkader who was indicted on charges of complicity in the massacre. Abdelkader still has not been tried and a judge recently denied his request to be freed from prison. No date for trial has yet been set.

Though police said they found explosives in Abdelkader’s car, he claims he had no idea his brother intended to go on a bloody spree and that he was in no way involved. He has, however, refused to give up the name of a man who may have known of Merah’s plans.

The then president Nicolas Sarkozy described the attacks as “isolated”, but authorities long suspected Merah had help in carrying out the killings. French intelligence sources noted Merah made 1,800 calls to over 180 contacts in 20 different countries in the years before the attacks.

The case has continued to be a potent symbol of France’s racial and religious tensions. A man was recently photographed in front of Ozar Atorah performing a “quenelle” hand gesture, a purportedly anti-Semetic salute that was at the heart of a controversy sparked by a French comic and provacateur this winter.  

Joshua Melvin (joshua.melvin@thelocal.com)

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