France launches hunt for Islamic extremists after attacks


President Nicolas Sarkozy, in mid-campaign for re-election, said Monday French security services would launch a hunt for Islamic extremists following the killing spree by an Islamist gunman.
Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old who claimed he had links to Al-Qaeda and was killed Thursday in a stand-off with police in Toulouse, killed seven people including three Jewish children in the attacks in southwestern France. “Are there other Merahs? All the security, intelligence and police services in democratic countries are on the lookout,” Sarkozy told France Info radio. He said the interior and justice ministries have been ordered to engage in a systematic evaluation of potential threats. On Sunday, authorities charged the gunman’s brother, 29-year-old Abdelkader Merah, with complicity in the attacks but he denied any involvement.
French security services have come under fire for not preventing the three shooting sprees, which saw the killings of three off-duty French soldiers and three children and a teacher at Jewish school. The attacks have also pushed security issues up the agenda in the midst of a heated campaign for France’s April-May presidential election. Merah said he had received training in Pakistan and Afghanistan and he had been on a US “terror blacklist” banning him from US-bound flights after he was arrested in Afghanistan and sent back to France. The director general of the French national police, Frederic Pechenard, defended security services Monday, saying it was easier to criticise in hindsight.
“It’s easy now, when we have the killer’s name, to look back. It’s a bit like the lottery: it’s easy to have the six numbers in order after the fact,” he told RTL radio. He said police were facing a daunting task in evaluating the risks of other potential extremists. “There are hundreds of young French people who go to Egypt, to Yemen, to Pakistan to study the Koran… who are nothing more than religious,” he said. “Amid these hundreds of people are a few potential terrorists whom we need to work on.” Sarkozy also said Monday that France had barred influential Qatar-based Sunni Muslim cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi from visiting the country. In the heated atmosphere following the attacks, Qaradawi’s planned visit next month for a congress of the Union of Islamic Organisations in France (UOIF) was attacked by the opposition Socialists and far-right National Front. “I told the emir of Qatar himself that this gentleman was not welcome in the territory of the French Republic,” Sarkozy told France Info. Qaradawi, who hosts a popular show on Al-Jazeera satellite television, backed Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and has launched a fund-raising effort for the Syrian opposition.