As readers of this blog know, I have a lot of admiration for France’s formidable intelligence services: both for their professional acumen and for their adult attitudes about espionage matters. But they make mistakes too, and I’ve explained some of the serious ones they made in failing to prevent Mohamed Merah’s awful mass killing spree in the south of France in March 2012.
It seems to have happened again. On Friday, customs officials in Marseille arrested twenty-nine year-old Mehdi Nemmouche as the prime suspect in the May 24 attack on Brussels’ Jewish Museum that killed three, two of them Israeli citizens. This attack seemed professional enough in its execution that some wondered if it was done by an intelligence service. Instead the killer turns out to be just another self-styled-jihadist-turned-terrorist.
Nemmouche is a walking cliche of this sordid genre. He never knew his father and was abandoned by his mother at three months of age, growing up in foster care until his grandmother took him in when he was seventeen. (Students of terrorism with long memories will note that his hometown, Roubaix, was where France’s first wave of domestic Islamist terrorism emanated from, when a group of ten terrorists from the gritty and impoverished town, fresh from the Bosnian jihad, unleashed a wave of bank robberies in 1995-96.) He had numerous brushes with the law, starting when he was nineteen, and was jailed five times on increasingly serious charges. It was during his last prison stint, from 2009 to 2012, that Nemmouche was radicalized, and he departed for Syria to wage jihad on December 31, 2012, just three weeks after his release from jail.
Nemmouche apparently spent a little over a year in Syria, fighting with an Al-Qa’ida linked group, but French intelligence lost track of him, despite considerable efforts to watch his movements, and he was arrested in Marseille by chance, not based on any intelligence tip. Despite big efforts by Paris to show that it can cope with the unprecedented wave of jihadists leaving France to fight in Syria, some of whom will return home with murder on their minds, promises that the government has the situation under control have yet again been shown to be hollow. Today the Parisian daily Le Figaro tells the depressing story of what happened when Nemmouche got back from Syria:
On his return, the DGSE [General Directorate of External Security, i.e. French foreign intelligence] which is supposed to track our French jihadis in Syria, apparently missed him. It was German customs that detected him in March 2013, intrigued by his meandering route home, via Malaysia, Bangkok, and Istanbul. Germany reported his crossing to Paris, and there, officially, the DCRI [Central Directorate of Domestic Intelligence, i.e. French domestic intelligence], listed him as someone that should be kept under surveillance. In other words a suspect recorded on a so-called “S” file. From March to May 30, the day of his chance arrest, so for over two months, Nemmouche completely disappeared off the radar. Meanwhile he is suspected of having perpetrated the shooting in Brussels on May 24.
If French intelligence and police can lose track of a high-interest possible terrorist even when allies are helping, one has to wonder how much more terrorism is coming. It’s clear that Paris is simply overwhelmed by the sheer number of its citizens going to Syria and returning home even more radical. In response to the failure of France’s counterterrorism efforts yet again, emulating the Merah case, Bernard Squarcini, the former DCRI director, demanded “ambitious reforms” of the intelligence system to meet this rising threat, adding that “the umpteenth intelligence reform led by [Interior Minister] Manuel Valls has clearly changed nothing, since there are still some glaring shortcomings in the detection of jihadis.” There is not much time left to repair the system. Three dead in Brussels ought to be enough. If major changes are not implemented soon, more innocent people will die.