Mohammed Merah, who admitted to gunning down children, soldiers and a Jewish religious teacher in France, spent his youth in and out of the legal system before adopting radical Islam and heading to Afghanistan.
That’s the portrait of the 23-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent that emerged from French authorities and his lawyer. The petty criminal from a broken home who turned to sensational killing and “boasted about having brought France to her knees” according to the prosecution, died during a police raid today after being holed up in his apartment for 32 hours. The crimes he admitted to, make him the first homegrown Islamic terrorist to commit violent acts on French soil.
“He expressed no regrets except to say he regretted not having killed more people,” said state prosecutor Francois Molins, who provided details yesterday about Merah’s life.
Merah claimed responsibility for two attacks in Toulouse, killing a soldier on March 11 and three children and a teacher at a Jewish School on March 19, and a March 15 shooting of three soldiers in uniforms in the nearby town of Montauban, two of whom died. The soldiers he killed were all of Arab descent.
He fled on a scooter after each attack, earning him the nickname in the French media of “the scooter killer.”
Merah claimed ties to al-Qaeda when policemen laid siege to his house yesterday. Interior Minister Claude Gueant said he was already on the French intelligence services’ watch list.
He made two trips to Afghanistan and was “categorized as a Salafist” by French authorities, Molins said. Salafist Muslims promote what they perceive as the pure form of Sunni Islam as practiced by the Prophet Muhammad and his companions.
Gueant said yesterday that Merah had been questioned in November 2011 by intelligence officials about his trips and had said they were for tourism.
His proclaimed killings were the first radical Islamic murders on France’s soil since an Algerian group killed four people in a terror bombing in 1996 in Paris.
“Never could I have imagined that he was capable of doing such a thing,” said Christian Etelin, a lawyer who represented Merah on his numerous run-ins with the law since 2005.
Merah, born Oct. 10, 1988 in Toulouse to Algerian parents, was one of five children, including three boys. His parents divorced several years ago and his mother now lives in Le Mirail, one of Toulouse’s poorest neighborhoods, Etelin said. Merah was jobless after having worked for an auto-repair shop.
His mother refused to help the police convince her son to surrender, saying she had no influence on him, Gueant said yesterday. His father was a rare presence in his life, although he did appear in court when Merah was an adult, Etelin said.
Merah was sentenced 15 times as a minor for petty crimes, including theft, Molins said. The psychological profile by the police concluded he was “violent as a minor.”
Friends and neighbors cited by Le Figaro newspaper described him as 5’6” tall young man, who dresses in sneakers and jeans, smokes and sometimes goes to night clubs.
He served 18 months in a Toulouse prison between the end of 2007 and Sep. 2009 for non-violent crimes, according to Etelin, who said he thought Merah may have been radicalized while there.
“There was a break” from the youth he knew before his imprisonment, Etelin said. “I supposed when he got out of prison that he was on the path of radicalization because while in jail there are other inmates who are very religious.”
For Dominique Thomas, a specialist on radical Islam, Merah “seems to be a delinquent, poorly integrated in society, who failed at school. What came out is a feeling of hatred and a desire for revenge. He didn’t seem to have a structured Jihadist ideology but to have channeled his hatred and claimed an al-Qaeda affiliation.”
Although his story had some parallels with homegrown terrorists who placed bombs in a bus and in the London underground on July 7 and 21, 2005 in a series of coordinated attacks, the cases are different, Thomas said. The London attacks killed 53 people and prompted an introspective look at integration of different communities within the U.K. population.
Thomas, who’s a professor at Paris-based École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales university, said Merah’s journey was different because while the U.K. terrorists “were much more structured, with a strong ideology, he is more borderline, between a criminal and a ‘desperado jihadist’ type.”
Etelin said he last saw Merah on Feb. 24 when he was sentenced to a month in jail for driving without a license and striking a pedestrian on his motorbike.
“He seemed calm, poised and willing to serve his sentence,” Etelin said. “He was a bad driver. He was a fanatic about mechanics, motorcycles, cars. He was passionate about Kawasakis.”
Upon his release from prison in 2009, Merah journeyed to Afghanistan by himself. While there, he was stopped by the Afghan army, turned over to the U.S. Army and sent back to France, Molins said, adding that this first trip to the central Asian country only lasted a few days.
The suspect returned to the area on the Pakistan- Afghanistan border between August and October 2011, and again returned to France, this time with Hepatitis A.
During the standoff yesterday, Merah told police he was a “mujahedeen” and that he had spent time in the tribal zone of Waziristan, a wild, mountainous and lawless region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he said he trained with al-Qaeda affiliates.
While the suspect said he was a member of al-Qaeda, he also told the police that he “always acted alone” in the Montauban and Toulouse killings.
Merah’s oldest brother Abdelkader, 29, was “part of a network of Iraqi Jihadist” and also on the watch list of the DCRI, France’s intelligence services. Police yesterday found weapons and ammunitions in his brother’s car in Toulouse.
From his time in Afghanistan until the events of this month, there was “nothing” remarkable about his stay in the country. “He wasn’t localized, we didn’t know exactly where he was at the time of the investigation,” Molins said.
At 1 a.m. yesterday, before the police surrounded his home, Merah called a reporter at France 24 news channel to claim responsibility for the killings.
“He had the voice of a very young man,” Ebba Kalondo, the reporter at France 24, told BFM TV. “He was quiet, polite, spoke impeccable French, and seemed very determined. He wanted to claim responsibility for the acts, to protest the law banning the Islamic veil, France’s participation in Afghanistan and on the killing of the Jewish children, he said it was revenge for murdered Palestinian children,” she said.