It’s an alarming oversight with terrifying implications: The intelligence unit of Paris Police somehow overlooked a radicalized Islamic convert within their own ranks. Last week, the troubled individual in question carried out an attack inside Paris Police headquarters that ended with four victims stabbed to death, while the attacker was shot down by his former colleagues.
WSJ has the full the story of how Mickaël Harpon, the 45-year-old attacker in question, evolved from a quiet IT expert into a disaffected convert to Salafism – a fundamentalist version of Islam that is widely credited as the inspiration for Al Qaeda and other terror groups.
During a lunch break last week, Harpon bought two knives, returned to the office with them, then suddenly started stabbing colleagues.
According to WSJ, the attack has destroyed the country’s confidence in its intelligence apparatus and its procedures for rooting out potential purveyors of Islamic terror.
Even though he worked inside the Paris Police’s Intelligence Unit, his transformation into a dangerous ideologue somehow went unnoticed. What’s worse: As one of the unit’s IT specialists, Harpon had access to top-secret information, including the identities of agents going undercover inside mosques around the city. His desk was positioned just steps away from the division’s leaders. Now, hundreds of agents are examining flash drives found at Harpon’s desk, and they’re trying to determine whether he shared any classified intel with other extremists.
Despite his seeming importance within the organization, Harpon told friends that he felt he wasn’t being taken seriously at the office, and that he suspected he had been passed over for promotion because of a disability.
The disability? Deafness in one ear that forced him to wear a hearing aid. The disability stemmed from his childhood on the French Caribbean island of Martinique. As a boy, Harpon was afflicted with meningitis in his youth. The sometimes fatal illness caused the hearing loss.
Soon after he was hired by the intelligence division inside the Paris police force in 2003, his superiors found him to be a dedicated and efficient employee. Slowly, he gained more trust and more seniority within the organization. He converted to Islam several years after joining the Paris PD, after he had moved in with a Muslim woman from Madagascar. They eventually married, despite a complaint filed by the woman claiming she had been abused by Harpon. The complaint was later withdrawn, but it resulted in Harpon receiving an administrative sanction.
When he married, Harpon should have triggered another background check for himself and his bride. However, it was never carried out, and he maintained his security clearance.
French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner described this oversight as “a malfunction”. “Would that have changed things? I don’t know,” he added.
But that’s not even the most galling oversight. In 2015, shortly after the shooting at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a colleague of Harpon’s allegedly heard him comment that the victims “deserved it.” He reported this comment to superiors within the department. But shockingly, nothing was done.
There was neither a mention of the complaint in Harpon’s personnel file, nor a motion to carry out another background check. His next background check to maintain his security clearance was slated for 2020.
Castaner described this oversight as “a serious malfunction.”
A friend of Harpon’s told WSJ that he was a quiet man who never showed any indication that he had become radicalized, and was planning an attack.
“He felt people didn’t take him seriously because of his handicap,” the friend told WSJ.
Even his wife told police that she didn’t suspect an attack. At worst, she feared, Harpon might kill himself.
Hopefully, French intelligence will tighten up its security standards and oversight of its employees after this incident. But winning back the trust of the public will probably require a serious effort on behalf of the agency.