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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Mohammed Merah: Lead Suspect In France-Based Jewish School Assassins (Al Qaeda Jihadist)

Who is French shootings suspect Mohammed Merah?

Mohammed Merah, a 23-year-old man described by French authorities as a self-styled al Qaeda jihadist, has been named as the chief suspect in a series of shootings that have left seven people dead.

As a standoff with security forces in Toulouse continued Wednesday, a picture emerged of a man who was already known to the police and had apparently sought out Islamist jihadists in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"He claims to be a jihadist and says he belongs to al Qaeda," Interior Minister Claude Gueant told reporters in Toulouse. "He wanted to avenge the Palestinian children and take revenge on the French army because of its foreign interventions."

Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said the suspect told the officers surrounding his apartment that he had acted alone -- and that he had intended to carry out more attacks on police and a soldier Wednesday.

His only regret was that he was not able to kill more people, the prosecutor said.

But, Molins added, Merah indicated he was not on a suicide mission. He "does not have the soul of someone who would commit suicide, does not have the soul of a martyr. He would prefer to kill and to live," the prosecutor said.

A French national of Algerian origin, Merah had been under surveillance by French intelligence for a couple of years, having "already committed certain infractions, some with violence," Gueant told CNN affiliate BFM-TV.

Merah has spent considerable time in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the minister added.

Lawyer Christian Etelin, who represented Merah in connection with previous minor offenses, said his client went to Afghanistan two years ago.

He had become suddenly radicalized, Etelin told CNN affiliate BFM-TV, and wanted to become more involved politically.

Etelin last saw Merah, whom he described as having a "complex" personality, on February 24, when he appeared in court accused of driving without a license and causing an accident with injuries.

Merah was sentenced to a month in prison and was to appear before the judge again in early April to determine where he would serve that sentence, the attorney said.

But a series of clues, some relating to a scooter used in the attacks, instead led investigators to the apartment in Toulouse where he holed up under siege for hours, Molins said.

The shootings have revealed a ruthless and determined killer.

All seven victims were shot in the head, most at point-blank range, and authorities said they were carefully targeted because of their religious and ethnic backgrounds.

The gunman's first victims were three soldiers of North African origin who had recently returned from Afghanistan, who were shot dead in two separate incidents.

Days later, the killer struck again, killing a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school Monday.

Merah claims to want to bring France "to its knees," Molins said.

He told police he had trained with al Qaeda in Pakistan's Waziristan region, bordering Afghanistan, Molins said.

He was sent back to France after being picked up at a traffic stop by Afghan police who reported his presence to international forces, the prosecutor said.

Although his neighbors describe him as being a quiet man, at home Merah had watched violent jihadist videos online, including footage of decapitations, Molins said.

He was sentenced 15 times by a Toulouse juvenile court when he was a minor, the prosecutor added.

The French defense ministry said Merah had twice tried to join the country's armed forces.
The first time, in the northern city of Lille, he was turned down because of his prior convictions.

The second time, in July 2010, he attempted to sign up for the Foreign Legion in Toulouse but left during the first round of testing, the ministry said.

As the net closed on the suspect early Wednesday, two police officers were wounded as shots were fired from the apartment where he is holed up.

Gueant said authorities found weapons in the suspect's car, which was parked near the building.

Police tracked Merah down via his brother's computer IP address, which was apparently used to respond to an advertisement posted by the first victim, Gueant said.

His brother Abdelkader Merah has been detained, and police are questioning other family members, including his mother, Zoulika Aziri, Molins said.

She lives in the Toulouse suburb of Mirail, BFM-TV reported.

Merah's activities in Pakistan and Afghanistan led to him being placed under surveillance by France's domestic intelligence agency, the Central Directorate of Interior Intelligence, for suspected involvement as a radical Salafist, Gueant said.

But little is known about what might have triggered a radicalization.

He was born in Toulouse in October 1988, according to Elisabeth Allanic, magistrate at the prosecutor's office in Paris, and at one time he worked in a garage in a Toulouse suburb.

Lawyer Etelin told BFM-TV he had represented Merah since 2004 or 2005, when his client was a minor, mostly over accusations of theft.

He said Merah had been "polite and courteous" and had shown no signs then of a tendency toward radicalization.

That might have changed after his trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan, but Etelin said he didn't notice a big difference.

"I never discussed his political ideas with him. I knew he was politically active but he never spoke to me about this. He didn't want to talk about this," Etelin said.

"He was very discreet on this. But I never had the impression that he was an individual radically different from the one I knew in the beginning. I always knew him as being someone very flexible in his behavior, courteous, polite, soft and certainly not rigid to the point of being led by a certain fanaticism."

Etelin has mainly been in contact with Merah's older sister, who, along with their mother, he recounted, was "exasperated" with Merah's minor crimes and said "it was not possible to see him being serious."

Merah grew up in a northern suburb of Toulouse called Les Izards, which Etelin described as an area with some drug-related activity.

Merah was never mixed up in drug-related incidents but rather with robbery, he said.
Etelin has not spoken to Merah since he was named as the suspect in the killings in Toulouse and Montauban but fears the siege of his apartment will end in further violence.

"There is no situation more terrible than the one he is in now, where he will die or will commit suicide," Etelin said.

French authorities continue to negotiate with the suspect as they seek to take him into custody alive.

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Sources: CNN, NY Times, Youtube, Google Maps

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