Toulouse, FRANCE - A 32-hour siege at the home of the suspected gunman, who attacked a Toulouse Jewish school and French soldiers, ended on Thursday in a hail of bullets when French police stormed the apartment and the 24-year-old was shot dead as he jumped from the building.
Now the authorities and police face serious questions about a string of apparent failures in the tracking, hunting and botched capture of the self-declared al-Qaida terrorist who murdered seven people, including three children.
Throughout the siege, senior French police officers explained that it was part of psychological warfare against the suspect, Mohamed Merah, to ensure he was captured alive and to avoid further casualties.
The authorities said Merah was a valuable intelligence asset from whom they could learn how young French Muslims become radical terrorists.
The outcome - a dead suspect and three wounded policemen, including one seriously - could have been achieved at the beginning of the siege. That was only one of the apparent failures the government must now deal with in the midst of a stormy presidential campaign.
In a statement made after the siege ended, French President Nicolas Sarkozy commended the police commandos who raided the apartment. He went on to declare "reassembly and unity" a top national priority.
The huge operation, involving hundreds of investigators and police officers, started only on Monday afternoon, in the aftermath of the shooting at the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse, despite the fact that already four days earlier, after the murder of three French soldiers, it was clear the perpetrator operated in the same way and was liable to strike again.
For several days, security forces stuck to the theory that the perpetrators were Neo-Nazis, apparently dismissing other lines of inquiry, although Merah was known to them as a radical Islamist operative.
Had Merah not called a television station to boast of his deeds, the security forces would not have realized they were dealing with Islamic terror.
After Merah was tracked down, hundreds of policemen and commandos surrounded his building. They cut off the electric power in the surrounding streets, detonated stun grenades to unsettle him and broke the windows of a ground-floor apartment. But despite their complete control of the environment, they failed to insert surveillance devices, such as an optic fiber, into his apartment to find out the suspect's exact location.
Thursday morning, when the order was finally given to break inside, Merah was already believed to have committed suicide or collapsed from exhaustion. He surprised the forces when he stormed out of the bathroom, very much alive and firing a submachine gun.
Despite Sarkozy's order to bring Merah out alive, at this stage the commandos apparently fired to kill. The only thing that kept them alive was probably their flak jackets.
Beyond the issues regarding the security forces' performance in the past week, the authorities will have to ask themselves how a young man who was born and raised in France had turned into a radical follower of Islam and was capable of murdering children at point-blank range and amassed an impressive arsenal under the authorities' nose.
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