Was Toulouse killer a police informant?
Media reports point to close relationship with French security service despite official denial
John Lichfield has been The Independent's man in Paris since 1997, covering French news. Before that, he was the paper's Foreign Editor and he has also worked in Brussels and Washington. In 1999, he was the UK press Awards Foreign Reporter of the year.
Thursday 29 March 2012
The head of the French internal security service has denied suggestions that authorities "missed" the Toulouse gunman because he was a police informer. Bernard Squarcini took the unusual step of intervening personally to quash speculation that Mohamed Merah was an indic or "snout" for one of his own agents in Toulouse.
Paradoxically, however, the allegations, including stories in the Italian and French regional press, began with a remark by Mr Squarcini himself. The speculation has since been amplified following comments by a retired head of one of the two French security services merged under Mr Squarcini's control four years ago.
Last Friday, the day after Merah, 23, was shot while resisting arrest, Mr Squarcini told Le Monde that the killer had asked, during his 32-hour siege, to speak to a Toulouse-based officer in his agency, the Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur (DCRI). It was this agent – understood to be a young woman of North African origin – who had interrogated Merah when he returned from a two-month visit to Pakistan in November last year.
The DCRI chief told Le Monde newspaper that Merah shocked the agent by saying: "Actually, I was meaning [before the siege] to call to say I had some tip-offs for you. But, actually, I was going to bump you off." In French, he used the word fumer, which means "to smoke" but in slang translates to "murder" or "waste". He also used tu, the familiar word for "you".
In other words, Merah appeared to have a friendly relationship with the agent and intended to lure her into an ambush by pretending to have information about radical Islamist activities in Toulouse. French newspapers have pointed out that even low-level "informant" status for Merah could explain why he passed under the radar of the police and security services.
In an interview this week with the Toulouse paper La Dépêche du Midi, a former security chief, Yves Bonnet, said it was "striking" that Merah seemed to have a DCRI "handler". "Having a handler, that is not an innocent thing," he said. "I don't know how far his relationship, or collaboration, with the service went but it is a question worth raising."
Mr Bonnet was head of the counter-espionage service, the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST), from 1982 to 1985. This was one of the two agencies merged by President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008 to form the DCRI. The merger generated much jealousy and anger. Government sources suggest that this could to explain Mr Bonnet's "unhelpful" remarks. This week, an Italian paper, Il Foglio, citing "intelligence sources", said Merah travelled to Israel in September 2010 using cover provided by the French external espionage service, the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure(DGSE). A spokesman for the DGSE, the French equivalent of MI6, dismissed the report as "grotesque". Mr Squarcini has said Merah was never an informer for any French security agency.
Le Canard Enchaîné newspaper reported yesterday that Merah and his family were bugged by the DCRI from March to November last year. The bugging ended abruptly, Le Canard said, at about the time of the future killer's meeting with the DCRI agent in November. However, the body which authorises telephone surveillance said later that the bugging began in November and was dropped in February because it revealed nothing important.
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