French gunman's journey to terror
27 March 2012, 14:53
Paris - Mohamed Merah grew up in one of the toughest housing projects of
Toulouse, with his mother, two brothers and two sisters. At age five,
his parents split up - and he took that hard. As a youth he turned to
petty crime, landing in prison twice.
How the young man
described by one top official as a "little failure" went on to carry out
France's biggest terror spree since the mid-1990s is provoking
anguished questions in one of the West's most-seasoned
Merah's weeklong motorcycle shooting
rampage killed three French paratroopers, three Jewish schoolchildren
and a rabbi, horrifying France and raising fears that al-Qaeda had
struck again in Europe.
The 23-year-old himself bragged of affiliation to the terror network, but officials say no evidence has turned up of such ties.
In some ways, Merah came across as an ordinary, if troubled, youth.
A one-time auto body shop worker, Merah liked cars and motorcycles - and enjoyed spinning out in vacant-lot "rodeos" with any car that he got his hands on, said a French official close to the investigation.
Merah partied and was seen dancing at a nightclub days before his first suspected shooting, on March 11.
the run-of-the-mill image hid "a second personality", said the
official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of
Bernard Squarcini, the head of the French police
counterterrorism agency, told Le Monde newspaper that Merah had shown
"psychiatric issues" in the past that may have contributed to his
What tipped the balance, Merah's former lawyer said, was
his anger over what he saw as an unjust prison sentence and a failed
effort to join the military.
"That laid the groundwork from which
he threw himself into this religious fanaticism, in a spirit of
vengeance" against the French state, lawyer Christian Etelin said.
Merah enjoyed nightlife, the Frenchman of Algerian descent also moved
in a crowd of ultraconservative Muslims. During the police standoff that
ended on Thursday with him being shot dead, Merah said he'd grown more
radical in prison, often reading the Qur'an alone.
his fellow Salafis, however, Merah was not considered much of a thinker
and displayed few outward signs of religious extremism, officials say.
was seen more as a little failure from the projects," Ange Mancini,
President Nicolas Sarkozy's top intelligence adviser, told France-24 TV
Sarkozy told French radio that Merah went "from the
most ordinary criminal delinquency, starting as a minor, to the most
brutal terrorism with no warning, with no transition".
possible accomplices, authorities have focused on Merah's older
brother, 30-year-old Abdelkader Merah, who is in custody and was handed
preliminary charges for complicity in murder and terrorism on Sunday for
allegedly helping hatch the plot - claims the brother denies, according
to his defence lawyer.
The older Merah reportedly became
Mohamed's mentor after their father returned to Algeria and the children
went in and out of foster care.
Abdelkader, too, was known to
authorities: He was implicated but never charged in an investigation in
2007 of a recruiting network for jihadists to fight in Iraq. In recent
years, he travelled often to Egypt - for sometimes months at a time - to
attend Qur'anic schools.
police had known about Mohamed Merah since at least 2005 - when he was
convicted as a minor for receiving stolen property.
It was the
first of what would be a total of 15 convictions: Eight while a
juvenile, and seven for misdemeanours as an adult, said Elisabeth
Allannic, a spokesperson with the Paris prosecutors office. He was sent
to prison for 18 months for aggravated theft in January 2008, she said.
France's highly reputed counterterrorism officials first learned about
him in November 2010, when he turned up in southern Afghanistan - caught
at a random roadway checkpoint by Afghan police and handed over to the
US military, which alerted French military intelligence.
came at the tail end of a meandering road trip across the Middle East -
Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, even Israel - before he travelled to
Egypt, where he met up with his brother in Cairo, the French official
Merah then spent three weeks in Tajikistan before crossing
over into Afghanistan. He was arrested in the southern city of Kandahar
on November 22 2010, nine days after entering Afghanistan, and was flown
to Kabul by US forces.
A European intelligence official said
Merah was questioned by Afghan intelligence, which then told the French
Embassy in Kabul about him - but French authorities didn't pick him up.
Merah flew home early the next month, of his own accord. The official
spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak
to the media.
Looking for a wife
After his arrest
in Afghanistan, the United States quickly put Merah on its no-fly list.
But French authorities did not, opting instead to put him under police
surveillance after he returned home to southern France.
watch in the spring of 2011, Merah drew little suspicion, the French
official close to the investigation said. He partied, didn't go often to
the mosque, was cordial with his neighbours and showed no violent
By August 2011, with French police believing that
he was not a threat, he was off again - to Lahore, Pakistan. His mother
had prodded him to go there to look for a wife, the French official
During that trip, French authorities went to his home in
Toulouse and posted a summons for him to report in so they could
question him about his earlier trip.
"Then he called us," the
official said. "He must have been alerted by someone in his family ...
He was very polite, saying, 'I'm busy, but I will call you when I get
While on his trip, he caught Hepatitis A and returned to
France in October 2011 for treatment. This time, Merah called police
from Purpan hospital in Toulouse to again delay the appointment.
it finally took place in November, Merah brought along a USB key with
photos he had taken, telling his interrogators that his trip was for
"We weren't fooled," the French official said. After
further analysis, Merah was placed on a "wanted persons file" - which
would alert authorities any time in the future that he tried to use his
passport to travel.
Merah, who generally worked odd jobs for a
month or so at a time, at one point appeared to have considered a
military career. He spent one night in July 2010 at a French Foreign
Legion recruitment centre in Toulouse - as part of a standard
information session, but left the next morning without an explanation,
French army spokesperson Colonel Bruno Lafitte said.
police he received individualised training in Pakistan, according to
Squarcini. He claimed to investigators that he was trained in Pakistan's
restive Waziristan region.
But French officials have so far dismissed this theory.
the moment, nothing shows he was at training camps in Pakistan.
Nothing," said Mancini, alluding to official "diverse sources" who keep
watch on attendees of the Pakistani camps.
firearms - including a Colt .45 and an automatic Sten pistol - were
unsophisticated and not uncommon in French housing projects. Prosecutors
said that during the standoff, he claimed to have obtained €20 000
worth of weapons by theft - which investigators doubt.
weapons he had were obsolete for a real jihadist," said Mancini. "Colt
.45s - these weapons date from Prohibition era in the United States ... A
Sten? Those weapons were parachuted in by the English during World War
II! A mini-Uzi? It's a relatively old style of weapon."
ethnically mixed Des Izards project where Merah grew up, residents said
tensions grew palpably when they learned that the gunman was one of
their own. A woman in an Islamic face veil recalled Merah driving past
on his scooter, music blasting.
Georges Baldachno, living there
since 1964, lamented, "Now there is delinquency everywhere." A group of
young men threw a rock to scare reporters away.