As more details continue to emerge about Mohamed Merah, the 23-year-old Frenchman who killed seven people and who was himself killed after a 32-hour standoff with police in the southern city of Toulouse, there will be a rush to blame French security officials in what seems like a clear intelligence failure.
The “How could they miss this guy?” argument is a valid one, just as it was in the case of Hassan Nidal, the US Army major who shot 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas in 2009, or in the case of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian who orchestrated attacks which left 77 people dead in 2011. As tragic as the Merah, Nidal and Breivik cases are, it is important to keep a measured outlook on these incidents and to remember that intelligence failures are inevitable.
That may be a maddening conclusion, but it is a reality that must be accepted. Despite the remarkable advances made in intelligence gathering over the past decade, particularly on the technical side, it is a science that is still reliant upon human cognizance, which means it is also susceptible to human failure.
Should France’s Central Directorate of Interior Intelligence, or DCRI, have kept a far closer eye on Merah, who fit the profile of a jihadist and had a criminal background? Absolutely. But Merah is also not the only disaffected Algerian youth living in France today.
There is a tendency to forget about the sheer volume of threats, real or perceived, that intelligence agencies in the US and Europe contend with on a daily basis. The gargantuan task of identifying and tracking each remote person of interest requires such a high level of coordination and communication that mistakes are and will be made.
Failing to recognize the Merah threat sooner was disappointing, but then again, cases where good intelligence has foiled otherwise nefarious plots usually go unreported. One could make the likely unpopular argument that DCRI did an admirable job in stopping Merah before his killing spree could continue.
This reasoning is not an attempt to whitewash intelligence failings or cheapen in any way the tragedies that resulted from Merah’s brief reign of terror. But society needs to accept, no matter how begrudgingly, that in this day and age, as security agencies and terrorists equally try to one-up each other in technique, intelligence failures will happen. What is critical is that when failures occur, the agency in question has a system in place for a thorough and transparent review.
Intelligence collection and analysis is usually a thankless job, one that is subject to unrelenting pressure. As DCRI is evaluated for its handling of the Merah case, let us hope the French public’s call for responsibility is one of measured rationality instead of unmitigated blame.