Three days after the shooting of four Jews outside the Otzar HaTorah school in Toulouse two and a half years ago, then-Interior Minister Claude Gueant briefed the leaders of the Jewish community. He told them that the investigators believe the murderer was a member of a neo-Nazi group.
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A few hours later, Mohammed Merah called a television station to brag about the shooting spree he had carried out in revenge for French and Israeli policies in the Middle East. Merah would almost certainly have been caught eventually due to one mistake or another, but the difficulty in tracking him down, even after tens of thousands of French security personnel had been sent to the area, underlines the huge difficulty facing the French government in locating and preventing potential attackers.
Sharif and Said Kouachi, who are now the main suspects in the murders of 12 people at the offices of satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris on Wednesday, were identified only because one of them left an identity card in the abandoned getaway car, most likely by mistake. Thousands of police and soldiers are now in Picardy, north of the capital (part of the 88,000 people involved in the largest manhunt and security operation in French history), directed there thanks to a sharp-eyed civilian who saw two men resembling the suspects filling up gas with weapons in their car. Troops are combing the forests and villages, but the fugitives may already be far away.
French intelligence has not yet ascertained whether the Kouachis, assuming they are the perpetrators, were members of any organization. Witnesses at the murder scene said the pair claimed to be members of Al Qaida’s Yemeni branch. Thursday it emerged that some in the jihadist group that Sharif belonged to in the past – and, due to his involvement in their plans to send young jihadis to fight in Iraq, was sent to prison for 18 months – are now active in ISIS. It is hard to imagine that such a devastating attack on a target fortified with armed security, one that required detailed planning and storing of weapons, could have been carried out without any backup. But so far there isn’t even clear proof that either of the brothers spent time abroad receiving military training.
The fact that Sharif was on the security services’ radar since 2008, when he was arrested for illegal activity, indicates a failure in preventing him from getting this far, but also emphasizes how difficult it is for European law enforcement to simultaneously track thousands of potential suspects who have either returned from Syria and Iraq, are intending to travel there, or haven’t yet attracted attention. The fact that French authorities are not allowed to hold records of citizens’ religion and ethnicity, and that hundreds of millions of citizens of other European Union countries can cross France’s borders freely, often without registration, makes the task almost impossible.
To all this must be added the murder of a policewoman Thursday morning in Paris, which may have no connection with the Charlie Hebdo murders but, from the circumstances and the weapon used, does not seem to have been a routine crime. French police are patrolling the streets of the country in the knowledge they have no idea where terrorism will strike next. Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Thursday evening, “We have powerful intelligence means to track the suspects down,” but he and all the tens of thousands who are busy searching know they are above all waiting for Sharif and Said Kouachi to make another mistake.