French investigation alleges police covered intelligence failure that led to priest's murder by extremists

The probe concerns charges of forgery and alteration of documents and was triggered by a complaint filed by civil parties in the case surrounding the murder of 85-year-old Father Jacques Hamel as he celebrated mass

The French prosecutor's office has opened a preliminary investigation into allegations that a police intelligence note had been post-dated to cover up a failure to act against an Islamic extremist who, along with a cohort, ultimately murdered apriest in 2016.

The probe concerns charges of forgery and alteration of documents, a judicial official said, and was triggered by a complaint filed by civil parties in the case surrounding the murder during Mass in the village of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray in Normandy, northern France.

The opening of the investigation follows a report on Thursday by the online investigative publication Mediapart revealing the existence of the intelligence note on Adel Kermiche, alleging it was post-dated after the deadly attack on 85-year-old Father Jacques Hamel  and suggesting the murder might therefore have been avoided.

The Mediapart article tackles the bureaucracy that allegedly kept the note about Kermiche from going up the command chain — and into the hands of the main intelligence service handling terrorism cases. Based on months of interviews with police officers close to the intelligence operation, it cited low staffing on summer holidays, poor work conditions and, above all, the need for members of the hierarchy to sign off on intelligence documents submitted by the rank and file.

"Because what we write is classified as a defence secret, there are too many controls, too much rereading, too many chiefs who want to correct the notes, put their stamp on it ...," said an unnamed officer in the intelligence unit quoted by Mediapart.

Father Hamel was killed by two 19-year-olds who slit the aged priest's throat. The two killers were themselves killed by police as they left the church of Saint Etienne.

ISIL claimed responsibility for the attack, as well as the attack in Nice earlier that month, July 14, when 84 people were killed by a man who drove his lorry down the seafront promenade as people celebrated the French national holiday.

In a statement, the office of the police chief of Paris police  - where the intelligence note originated  - denied the Mediapart allegations, saying the note evoked neither an imminent act nor "the targeting of a precise place".

Once the attack occurred, the intelligence officer who wrote the note based on his intercepts on the encrypted Telegram channel "immediately made the link with the individual he had identified", the statement said. Then, "without delay" the Paris police intelligence arm informed investigators and wrote a new note, dated July 26, 2016 — the day of the attack. Police headquarters dated the initial note July 22, four days before the attack, while Mediapart date it July 21.

The original note, "which bore no urgent nature and was part of the service's daily detection work, followed the normal circuit of validation," said the police chief's statement.

In contrast, Mediapart claimed that Kermiche, who had been arrested trying to go to Syria, said in a conversation lasting more than seven minutes on Telegram that because getting to Syria was difficult it was best to carry out attacks on home soil — for example, on churches.