Toulouse Killer’s Path to Radicalism a Bitter Puzzle (NY) TIMES) By DAN BILEFSKY TOULOUSE, France 03/30/12)
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TOULOUSE, France — During the long standoff that ultimately ended his
life, a boastful Mohammed Merah told law enforcement officials that
he had been trained by Al Qaeda. He described being driven to kill
his seven victims in a shooting rampage that terrorized this city by
his resentment over the fate of the Palestinians, and France’s
military presence in Afghanistan and ban on the full Muslim veil.
Little more than a week later, the French authorities say they have
grown doubtful of his claims to terrorist ties, though questions
remain about how Mr. Merah, an unemployed 23-year-old of Algerian
descent, acquired a large cache of firearms and $26,000 in cash.
Their early investigations — and the impressions of many here —
suggest that his personal angst was at least as important to his
evolution into a self-styled jihadist as any terrorist network that
might have been available to him, either here in the grittier
neighborhoods of this picturesque red-brick city or in jail, where he
spent time for purse snatching and other petty crimes.
Mr. Merah was buried Thursday in Toulouse after Algeria refused to
accept his body for burial there, citing security reasons, said
Abdallah Zekri, of the French Muslim Council.
Childhood friends said they could not fathom how that smiling, skinny
youth who loved fast cars and nightclubs and gave out sweets to
neighborhood children could have become a Qaeda operative.
But they could easily relate to his visceral rage, common among many
second- and third-generation immigrants whose unemployment and
alienation once again loom as a threat.
Like many youths of North African descent, Mr. Merah identified more
with Islam than with France, said a 23-year-old former friend from
school, Faoud, who declined to give his last name for fear of being
hounded by the police.
“Our passports may say that we are French, but we don’t feel French
because we are never accepted here,” said Faoud, standing at a corner
store in Les Izards, Mr. Merah’s dilapidated neighborhood. “No one
can excuse what he did, but he is a product of French society, of the
feeling that he had no hope, and nothing to lose.”
“It was not Al Qaeda that created Mohammed Merah,” he said. “It was
The issue of France’s failure to fully integrate immigrants and
provide them with a sense of belonging and opportunity has been
notably absent from the country’s presidential campaign, even as some
candidates have intensified their calls to limit immigration and to
root out homegrown terrorism.
But not every angry young man carries out a murderous plot.
Investigators have been left to puzzle over Mr. Merah’s motivations
and whether he was helped to act on his anger.
They say he may have exaggerated or invented his claims of terrorist
training. “All signs indicate that Merah was an isolated lone wolf
and was not part of an organized terrorist network,” Pierre-Henry
Brandet, the French Interior Ministry spokesman, said in an
interview. “We believe that he was radicalized by his older brother,
Abdelkader, who had links to Salafist extremists. But Mohammed Merah
appears to have been largely self-taught.”
Most of his firearms were old-style, including three Colt .45s, a
Sten submachine gun and a shotgun. Terrorist networks typically use
explosives, experts said, and only an amateur would have used weapons
with different calibers, requiring a variety of ammunition.
That does not necessarily mean Mr. Merah acted alone. Video Mr. Merah
apparently recorded of his killings was sent to Al Jazeera,
postmarked March 21, the day before Mr. Merah was killed by a bullet
to the head as the standoff ended. The video had been edited and
manipulated, according to Al Jazeera, with religious songs and
recitations of Koranic verses laid over the footage. It is unclear
who sent it, and whether Mr. Merah knew how to edit video.
Investigators have focused on his older brother, Abdelkader, who was
indicted this week on suspicion of being an accomplice. Officials say
he helped Mr. Merah steal the scooter used in the attacks, and traces
on his cellphone place him near a Jewish school in the days before
his brother killed three children and a rabbi there.
Mr. Brandet, the Interior Ministry spokesman, said that Abdelkader
Merah had expressed pride in his brother’s acts and that there were
indications that he had been seeking to radicalize other family
One of the older Merah’s lawyers, Chmani Malika, said he denied any
involvement and was upset, not proud.
The police say they are also investigating whether the brothers had
links to a jihadist network known as the Toulouse Group. Mohammed’s
mother is married to Sabri Essid, a member, who investigators say was
linked to a Qaeda safe house in Syria in 2006.
In 2010, Mohammed Merah traveled, visiting Turkey, Syria, Lebanon,
Jordan, Israel and Afghanistan, Bernard Squarcini, the head of
France’s domestic intelligence agency, told Le Monde.
He said Mr. Merah was detained in Jerusalem after he was found to
have a knife. He was detained again in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in
November 2010, turned over to American forces, and sent back to
France. American officials said he ended up on their no-fly list of
potentially dangerous suspects.
While in Pakistan in October 2011 on a two-month trip, Mr. Merah
called a French intelligence official who had asked to interview him.
After returning to France and recovering from hepatitis, he met with
the official, bringing a memory stick with photographs of his
travels, law enforcement officials said. He told the agent he had
traveled as a tourist to find a wife.
During the standoff with the police, he told the same agent, whom he
had recently contacted, that he had planned to kill him. “I was going
to smoke you,” he said, according to officials.
Asked how Mr. Merah had been able to hatch his plot despite being
known to intelligence agencies in both France and the United States,
Mr. Brandet, the Interior Ministry spokesman, said there were
no “alarm signals.”
“We cannot just put every citizen under surveillance,” he
said. “France is not a police state.”
Mr. Merah’s lawyer, Christian Etelin, said his radicalization
probably took root when he was jailed for 21 months after stealing a
purse in December 2007 and became despondent about his future.
Friends say he tried to hang himself. And he started to read the
Koran, the police said Mr. Merah told them.
After being released, he was rejected by the army and the Foreign
Legion. He vainly sought work as a mechanic, Mr. Etelin said. Mr.
Merah’s rage, the lawyer added, might have been fueled by the end of
his brief marriage. Wed on Dec. 15, he was divorced in the days
before his killing rampage began.
“Before he went to prison, he told me that he wanted to join the army
and defend France and the French flag,” Mr. Etelin recalled. “But
after prison all his dreams were shattered. This boy with the face of
an angel began his evolution into a monster.”
Steven Erlanger contributed reporting from Paris. (Copyright 2012 The
New York Times Company 03/30/12)
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