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In Paris Knife Attack, Missed Signals and Calls for Vigilance

PARIS — When 12 people were killed at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January 2015, Mickaël Harpon — a future killer himself — declared, “serves them right.” A shocked colleague in the city’s Police Department heard him, and a sharp argument ensued.

But that was nearly as far as the complaint went. Colleagues of Mr. Harpon, who slashed four co-workers to death last Thursday, preferred “restraint,” a leaked internal police report said, and their bosses never pressed them. That summer, the police appeared to have had a chance to stave off the computer technician’s attack. They missed it.

Overlooked warning signs are now at the center of fierce recrimination, finger-pointing and calls for increased vigilance in a country that had half-forgotten the terrorist threat from within and that has suddenly reawakened to it.

In a somber, rain-soaked ceremony, President Emmanuel Macron honored the four dead on Tuesday in the courtyard of the massive Police Préfecture building, calling on the French to create a “society of vigilance.” It was in that sprawling space that a young police intern six days on the job pulled out his gun last Thursday and ended Mr. Harpon’s seven-minute rampage.

Meanwhile, in Mr. Harpon’s desk there investigators this week found a USB drive containing jihadist propaganda and the addresses of some colleagues.

Mr. Macron put his countrymen on new alert, urging them to “be on the lookout at school, at work, in places of worship, close to home, for the slackenings, the deviations, the little gestures that signal a distancing from the laws and values of the republic.”

It is France against “those who want to handcuff liberty, women, civility,” Mr. Macron said, associating them with “Islamist terrorism.”

A handful of “little gestures” and personal changes might have made Mr. Harpon’s colleagues wary: his refusal to shake women’s hands or to embrace them, and his marriage to a Muslim woman. But instead he was given high-level security clearance, a move that Interior Minister Christophe Castaner was unable to explain to Parliament on Tuesday. But he said that if the warning signs had not risen through the chain of command — which appears to have been the case — “it was a serious dysfunction, a major weakness.”

He signaled a new vigilance, as did Mr. Macron, adding that “what might have been considered before as a nonsignal should now be considered a weak signal.”

Mr. Castaner said that in recent years about 20 police agents had been pushed out of the force for showing signs of radicalization. Mr. Castaner has been the focus of intense criticism for initially saying that Mr. Harpon had not given the “slightest reason for alarm,” and the opposition has called for his resignation.

It is true that in January 2015, not everyone in Paris’s immigrant-dominated suburbs, where Mr. Harpon lived, joined the solidarity marches after the killings at Charlie Hebdo. Mr. Harpon’s attitude toward women did not necessarily mark him as extraordinary.

Yet at the time his colleagues felt sufficiently perturbed to report Mr. Harpon to several superiors. The dry language of the internal police report makes it clear that the signals detected by two police officials, however weak, were quickly snuffed out, whether through indifference, caution or timidity.

Meanwhile, Mr. Harpon, who was born in the Antilles and was deaf, became frustrated at work because he was not advancing. He started assiduously attending his local mosque, where services were sometimes officiated by a preacher who was nearly expelled from France for his views.

The internal police report in mid-2015 noted some shifts in Mr. Harpon’s habits. “Accompanied by a colleague from the same section, X” — the name of the concerned co-worker is blacked out — “said that he verbally informed, in July 2015, an official with SDSI,” or internal police security, “Major Y, responsible for tracking signs of radicalization, of the marriage of Mr. Harpon with a Muslim woman, of his conversion to Islam, and of the fact that he no longer shook women’s hands or embraced them.”

But little more was done. Major Y “asked them if they wanted to formalize this alert, which wasn’t their intention — rather, they were merely proceeding in an advisory capacity,” the report says. The next month, the two police officials’ commanding officer told Major Y that “there was no issue with Mr. Harpon, and that he would deal with it at his level.”

And that was the end of the inquiry. The complaints never even made it into Mr. Harpon’s spotless personnel file. The close-knit computer services section, where Mr. Harpon worked, continued to hum along, “almost like a family, and Mr. Harpon was totally integrated into it,” the report said. “This feeling seems incompatible with the suspicions of radicalization or risky behavior noted by Mr. Harpon’s colleagues in 2015.”

He might have no longer embraced women, but he drank coffee with his colleagues, and sometimes brought in little cakes baked by his wife, the same woman with whom he exchanged more than 30 religious-themed text messages in the minutes before his attack.

“I’m astonished that the holes are this yawning,” Eric Diard, a parliamentarian who co-wrote a report on radicalization in the public service, said at Tuesday’s hearing.

“On the whole, in his department, there was a feeling that no alert was necessary,” Mr. Castaner said.


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