Steve Weizman, AFP
Last updated: 23 March, 2012

Israeli experts criticise French handling of siege

Israeli security experts on Friday heaped scathing criticism on the French police’s handling of a 32-hour siege involving a gunman who killed seven people, three of them Jewish children.

“Operational failure” was the title of an analysis in the top-selling Yediot Aharonot daily written by former special forces officer Lior Lotan, who now heads a counter-terrorism think-tank.

“The French security forces failed in their mission,” he wrote of their attempt to capture self-proclaimed Al-Qaeda gunman Mohamed Merah at an apartment in the southwestern French city of Toulouse.

Police from the elite RAID unit failed to make proper use of “deception and concealment” thereby letting the suspect take the initiative, he wrote of the operation which ended when Merah jumped out of a window and was shot dead as he tried to fire on police.

“This is not how a professional unit to combat terror behaves,” former commando officer Uri Bar-Lev wrote in the rival Maariv newspaper.

“But it’s not fair for us to level criticism at them. They don’t have the professionalism and the experience that we’ve accumulated in combating terror.”

Danny Yatom, former head of the vaunted Mossad foreign intelligence agency and a one-time deputy-commander of an elite special forces unit, was a little more diplomatic.

“It’s hard to judge from this distance because each commando operation is different. Each one has its own characteristics,” he told Israeli army radio.

“This unit was given a very complex mission, to capture Mohamed Merah alive,” he said.

“If the order had been to get him dead or alive this would have ended at once; they would have staged an assault with a great deal of fire and have hit him.”

But Lotan said the operation should have been relatively straightforward, given that they were dealing with just a lone shooter.

“The objective was not complicated,” he wrote. “A residential apartment, a single fugitive, no explosives, no hostages, in an area that is not enemy territory or a battlefield but one which allows the security forces can deploy as they wish.

“Either there was a problem in the operational planning or they had to go into action before completing all their preparations,” he added.

“As a consequence, a process that should have been over in the minimum of time hit complications.”

Speaking on Israeli public radio, Alec Ron, a former head of the Israel police commando unit, said the French operation appeared to be characterised by “utter confusion and unprofessionalism,” compounded by a lack of real-time intelligence about what was happening inside the flat during the standoff.

“The technology exists, it’s there, and this could have been done completely differently, he said.

“It seems to me like an absolute disgrace. I don’t understand why they waited for 30 hours. I don’t understand why they didn’t have the required intelligence.”

Yatom said the intelligence failures began long before Merah began his shooting spree on March 11, which saw him kill three three soldiers last week before gunning down a Jewish teacher and three small children at a Toulouse school on Monday.

“One of the lessons which in my opinion (the French) will learn, is a consequence of the fact that Mohamed Merah was on both the French and American watch lists, he was denied entry to the United States, and they didn’t succeed in preventing either the first attack or those that came after,” he said.

“The French will have to make enormous efforts and make much deeper intelligence inroads into those cells, those organisations operating on French soil.”