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Islamic State: How France lost track of its repatriated jihadists

Three suspected jihadis walked freely into France, even though the authorities were warned of their arrival. With IS-linked militants killing a French national in Algeria today, the failure of France's security policies looms large.

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    Travelers sit at a cafe terrace as soldiers patrol in the background at the Gare du Nord station, in Paris on Tuesday.
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Three French jihadists, suspected of fighting for Islamic State in Syria, are repatriated by Turkish authorities to France, where their lawyers say they want to talk to government officials.

First they're put on the wrong plane. Then, arriving in France, they pass immigration without being stopped. Finally, they go to the local police station, which is closed, then wait 20 minutes for an officer to escort them to another police station so they can turn themselves in, according to French press reports. 

It sounds like a joke. But French opposition parties have seized on what they've dubbed "extraordinary amateurism" that shines a spotlight on the larger challenges facing European law enforcement as jihadists return home from Syria, potentially to continue their radical Islamic campaigns.

One of the Frenchmen's lawyers told local media the three suspects were relieved to be back home after realizing that their reasons for going to Syria "weren't necessarily good ones." One of the three is the brother-in-law of a gunman who fired into a Jewish school in 2012 and went on a rampage that ultimately killed seven people. Another is believed to be one of the shooter's close childhood friends.

Tuesday's comedy of errors began in Paris. Authorities waited for the men in the capital’s Orly airport Tuesday after their expulsion from Turkey, according to a statement from France's Interior Ministry. But the men never turned up. Instead they were put on a plane to Marseille, in southern France; Turkish intelligence didn’t notify the French it was too late.

In Marseille, the men walked unnoticed through passport control. Had they not turned themselves in, it is unclear how long it would have taken to find them. “The French aren’t going to understand the attacks in Iraq if we aren’t also mobilized at home, and now we hear that three jihadis just wandered around France without any problem,” Nadine Morano, a minister in the government of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, was quoted by Bloomberg as saying.

French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian blamed a lack of cooperation with Turkey. But France's own border controls also failed. Mr. Le Drian said on French radio that the computers in Marseille that should have flagged the trio were broken.

And this is not the first time that intelligence failures have let potential terrorists slip into Europe. The suspect behind an attack on a Jewish museum in Brussels in May was previously known to counter-terrorism officials. But after fighting in Syria, he flew to Germany and then headed to Belgium before boarding a bus to his native France, where he was arrested, but only after a random search.

The failures in this case, says Magnus Ranstorp, an expert on Islamist extremism at Swedish National Defense College, shows how the fight to keep Europe safe requires intense cooperation between intelligence services. “We are only as strong as the weakest link in Europe,” he says.

And it comes at a time of heightened security across the globe, especially in France, which joined the US in airstrikes against IS targets in Iraq last week and has since become the target for extremists.

Herve Gourdel, a French tourist who was taken hostage Sunday in Algeria after IS urged followers to kill “the filthy French,” was killed by his abductors according to a new video published online today. Speaking in New York, President Francois Hollande called it a "cruel and cowardly" act.  

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