Italian daily newspaper Il Foglio has made a second unprecedented claim: France granted Merah freedom of movement across the Middle East and in France in exchange for information.
The Italian journalist behind the claims is Daniele Raineri, who was an embedded journalist in Iraq and Afghanistan and is Il Foglio’s expert on Middle Eastern affairs. In an extensive interview with Press TV Raineri described a vast cover up of the true identity of Mohammed Merah.
Raineri says his anonymous source, which he will not name and whom he does not expect to come forward publicly, is a member of France’s foreign spy agency and counter-terrorism unit, the General Directorate for External Security (best known by their French acronym: DGSE).
In what appears to be the latest battle in a long line of cross-departmental rivalry, the DGSE source claims that Merah was an informant for the nation’s domestic intelligence network, the Central Directorate of Interior Intelligence (French acronym: DCRI).
Raineri says his source describes Merah as a double agent gone bad: A 23-year old who partied and used drugs while also claiming to follow extreme religious views, and a globe-trotting holy warrior who also snitched on his mujahedeen brethren.
Raineri admits that he has no physical proof, no documentation, but his claims would provide answers to the ballooning conspiracy theories which began immediately after security forces shot and killed Merah, who has been steadfastly portrayed by French authorities as a self-radicalized “lone wolf”.
The list of valid questions still awaiting satisfying answers should stagger even those individuals least given to entertaining ideas of conspiracy.
Given France’s stringent gun laws, how could Merah have amassed an arsenal of eight guns, including an Uzi automatic rifle? Perhaps more importantly, given the cold-blooded precision and experienced calm the police initially described upon viewing the Jewish school’s security videos, where did he learn to use the weapons with such assurance?
How could an unemployed auto body worker who was on welfare have paid for the guns, much less a 2010 trip that saw him visit Israel, Jordan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and possibly other Middle Eastern nations? Even for the petty criminal Merah appears to have been, plane tickets, housing and food would have been a small fortune. France’s newspaper of record, Le Monde, has called this a “gray area” which needs further investigation.
How could the brother of a man accused in 2007 of smuggling Islamic jihadists into Iraq get the necessary visas to visit these hotspots? Merah was even on the FBI’s no-fly list in the United States.
Why would France require more than 10 days to find one of the handful of known Islamic extremists living in southwestern France, when all they had to do was knock on his front door, which is where he was eventually cornered? France’s DCRI says they had followed Merah for more than a year, and recent reports allege that the DCRI had bugged Merah and his family for most of 2011.
During his final siege, why did Merah, according to Bernard Squarcini, ask for a local intelligence agent by name, and then tell her “I was going to call you to say I had some tip-offs for you, but actually I was going to [kill] you.”
Raineri is aware that he is staking his professional reputation on the claims of his anonymous source.
“I know it’s my word, but I can say my sources on this case are pretty reliable, and that’s it,” said Raineri.
Raineri’s confidence may stem from the feasible answers his source seems to provide him on many of these troubling questions.
So how does Raineri explain a known extremist like Merah gaining entry to perhaps a half dozen of the world’s biggest warzones?
“I cannot use the word ‘visa’,” said Raineri. “I’ve been told that there was some kind of arrangement or agreement to facilitate his travel. I know that (at) the entry there was some kind of guarantee because he had a really suspicious profile.”
Considering that Merah’s brother is a known Islamist who was implicated in a 2007 network that sent jihadists to Iraq, many would assume that his family name should have raised some red flags in international data bases. But Raineri believes Merah was working, in part, on behalf of French intelligence, which would explain why France may have cleared the obstacles from his path.
“Of course, if you have a guy going in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, and if you want to know what’s going on in the training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan you have to facilitate your guy in his travels, so that’s another pretty serious charge that I heard from my sources,” said Raineri.
Raineri confirms that the intelligence agent Merah asked for by name was on the scene to try and negotiate Merah’s surrender.
“She negotiated, and that’s because there was a trust between them,” opined Raineri. “The optional version is that they spoke just one time in November 2011, so this is a really strange point: You are under siege by police and you ask to talk with a one-time ‘handler’ you just met one time six months ago? That’s really strange, so I feel that Merah knew very well his handler.”
The French intelligence community has already come under major fire for not preventing the attacks. If Merah played the French for fools and then went on a terror campaign while supposedly under the watch of the DCRI, the damage could be irreparable.
“When one of your informers goes mad and starts killing people in the streets, I mean, it’s a huge failure,” said Raineri. “You don’t want to break the story about one your informants killing children in front of (their) school or killing soldiers in the streets.”
French President Nicolas Sarkozy formed the DCRI in 2008 and appointed Squarcini, his longtime friend. It hasn’t been smooth sailing for the DCRI, as Interior Minister Claude Gueant was forced to admit the DCRI wiretapped Le Monde’s journalists in the Bettencourt campaign finance scandal to try and find their secret source. Squarcini will face an inquiry, but the case has led to the description of the DCRI as a “political police”, far from neutral when it comes to current political matters.
Raineri has also reported on the host of differing claims made by multiple national intelligence services about Merah. The Israeli government denies that they arrested Merah for flying with a knife, but that contradicts what Squarcini said in an interview with Le Monde. The French government has denied that Merah ever trained with groups on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, but official Pakistani sources have said that France has a vital interest in cultivating Muslim extremist informants because a base in Waziristan has trained dozens of French Muslims (though it is unclear that if Merah was one of them), and is even led by a French Muslim. If official Taliban sources are to be believed, France’s account of Merah’s stay in Afghanistan should also be questioned.
France recently arrested 19 suspected Islamic militants in southwestern France, which permits Sarkozy to play tough for the election cameras. But if the DCRI, Sarkozy’s brainchild, is proved to have used Merah as an informant and failed to stop his reign of terror, Sarkozy’s re-election chances could be severely dimmed.
Mohammed Merah may not be alive to tell his story, but the French police do have his brother, Abdelkader, in custody. He is suspected of having aided his brother in multiple ways, and now the French legal system will have to rely on their judges to investigate.
A bold French judge will be needed to investigate other aspects of the case, but bold journalists are also required to continue asking questions that have flimsy answers. Yet it’s been an Italian reporter who has made the biggest claims, so far.
“The French newspapers are writing without connecting the dots,” said Raineri. “They have 80 percent of what they need but they refuse to write about Merah in the right way.”
France’s journalists have often been described as less aggressive than in many other areas of the world, but any large conspiracy is made up of many smaller conspiracies, and even a small conspiracy is hard to keep quiet for too long.