The murderous shooting spree by an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist in Southern France has started a fierce debate in France about the government's failure in handling the issue. The gunman, Mohamed Merah, who confessed to killing seven people, was killed in a police raid on his flat Thursday.

The issue has raised questions about the failure of French intelligence agencies. The French media has widely reported about the background of Merah, who in the past has openly claimed that the he belong[ed] to al-Qaeda.  

According to the media reports, there was enough background information available with the intelligence agencies to suspect Merah. Consider the following facts reported in the French media.

Merah and his brother had preached extreme Salafist ideology and the French intelligence had been aware of it for years.

Merah had nearly 15 convictions to his credit and some of them involved violence.

Merah had visited both Pakistan and Afghanistan more than once and he had been once arrested in Afghanistan and deported to France.

He reportedly had forced a youth to watch a video clipping of beheading by al-Qaeda and when his mother objected it it, he attacked her brutally. He even threatened her brandishing a sword and sais, I'm with al-Qaeda, according to a Telegramme newspaper report.  Again the police were aware of the case and his behavior.

An analysis of the above clearly indicates that intelligence agencies did have enough reason to follow up and watch Merah, if not to arrest him outright.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who subscribe to the right wing ideology, has been critical of growing influence of Islamist militancy in the country. As a knee-jerk reaction to the racial killing, he did propose new laws which include a provision to arrest anyone who frequents terrorism linked Web site, which his critics allege are not the practical solution to the problem.   

However, Sarkozy has denied any kind of laxity from the part of government or intelligence in handling the issue. Even while admitting the fact that the intelligence was aware of Merah's leaning towards jihad, the government said there wasn't sufficient ground to nail him.

I personally don't have any reason to think there was a failing. If it turns out that there was one then of course light must be shed but I absolutely have not said there was one,  foreign minister Alain Juppe told Europe 1 radio.

In an exclusive interview to the Le Monde newspaper, director of Central Intelligence Inside Bernard Squarcini opined that it was impossible to predict the incident, as Merah himself had acted instinctively. He said that Merah lacked the character of an indoctrinated jihadist and rather he is a victim of psychological disorders.

Referring to a conversation between an intelligence officer and the suspect during the negotiations he said, We must go back to the break of his childhood and his psychiatric disorders. To have done what he did, this is more of a medical problem and fanaticism that a simple path jihadist, according to the officer of the DRRI is its second personality who spoke Wednesday.

The opposition and Sarkozy's presidential opponents were critical of the government's failure to prevent the incident. According to a Reuters report, opposition leaders demanded an explanation on how Merah was able to get the sizable ammunition for his killing spree despite being under surveillance and having been questioned as recently intelligence service officials.

The social media had also taken up the debate on intelligence failure and the French immigration laws, with government representatives, opposition members and public exchanging volleys of criticism and arguments to each other, according to a Media Watch report.