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That was the case with Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old Frenchman killed in a standoff with police in March after allegedly killing three Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi, and three paratroopers in a rampage in southern France. Those were the country’s worst terrorist attacks since the 1990s.

Authorities later acknowledged that Merah, who espoused radical Islam and had trained in Afghanistan and Pakistan, had been questioned by French intelligence well before the attacks.

Also earlier this year, a French court sentenced an Algerian-born nuclear physicist to five years in prison for his role in plotting terrorism with al Qaeda’s north African wing via online contacts. Adlene Hicheur, a former researcher at Switzerland’s CERN physics laboratory, was convicted of “criminal association with a view to plotting terrorist attacks.”

His defenders say Hicheur was a victim of France’s over-zealous anti-terrorism laws and that he explored ideas on jihadist websites but never took any concrete step toward terrorism.

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Alan Clendenning in Madrid and Nicolas Vaux-Montagny in Paris contributed to this report.