Jihad? 'I didn't even know he prayed'

Thu, Mar 22, 2012, 00:00

PROFILE:MOHAMED MERAH, the man branded a terrorist murderer yesterday by French president Nicholas Sarkozy as he remained holed up and surrounded by armed police, is a 23-year-old French citizen of Algerian extraction.

A latter-day, self-proclaimed Islamist avenger for the sins of the West, Merah was a juvenile criminal with a string of convictions for violent crimes by the time he was rejected as a would-be member of the French Foreign Legion.

Subsequently, he discovered jihad - the Islamic word for struggle, meaning "striving to be a good Muslim" but interpreted by some as an imperative to wage war against non-Muslims - and went to Afghanistan and Pakistan. By the time he came home, he was a member of the al-Qaeda network and, according to France's BFM TV, was linked to Forsane Alizza, the so-called Knights of Pride, an Islamist group which has a record of targeting Jews and French soldiers and which was banned just last month.

Merah grew up on the Izards housing estate in Toulouse, according to French newspaper Journal du Dimanche. He was one of five children in the family which later moved into the block of flats on Sergent Vigne Street, in a quiet part of the city - the place where yesterday, he was surrounded by police.

A mechanic by trade, two years ago he applied to join the French Foreign Legion but failed on his first day, according to the magazine Le Point.

By the time he tried to join the legion, he is reported to have had a criminal record for 18 acts of violence. It was not clear yesterday whether this fact stymied his career as a soldier or he simply was not up to scratch to be admitted full time.

According to various French media sources and the BBC, Merah's connections with Afghanistan go back to 2007, when he was 18 years old.

What brought him there and what he did there was unclear but according to Gulam Farooq, the director of Kandahar prison, Merah was sentenced to three years in prison in 2007 after being arrested carrying bomb-making equipment.

The following year, he escaped along with several hundred others during a Taliban assault on the prison and the French authorities were alerted.

French interior minister Claude Guéant said yesterday that Merah had been under surveillance by the country's domestic intelligence service, the DCRI, for several years thereafter - apparently, given what he did subsequently, to no good effect. He led a normal life of soccer and nightclubbing, according to friends and neighbours who had no idea that he had been in Afghanistan.

One friend, who gave his name only as Kamal, a financial adviser at La Banque Postale, said he had known Merah at school and they had done soccer training together after meeting again two years ago.

"He is someone who is very discreet. He is not someone who would brag and go around and say 'Oh look at my new girlfriend, look how great I am.' He is very polite and always well-behaved," Kamal said. "He never spoke about Islam but he did pray. But we all pray five times a day. There's nothing strange about that."

Another friend of Moroccan origin, who gave the pseudonym Danny Dem, said Merah had tried to enlist in the army but had been rejected. He said he had seen Merah in a city centre nightclub just last week.

Merah did not drink, "but I don't think he is any more religious than I am. I think he has just lost the plot," Danny Dem said.

A third contemporary, who declined to give his name, said he went to primary school with Merah and they had remained friends.

"He likes football and motorbikes like any other guy his age," said the man, dressed in a blue French national soccer shirt. "I didn't even know he prayed."

Merah's apparent commitment to extreme jihad appears to have been hardened during two visits to Pakistan, in 2010 and 2011. Conflicting reports in France say his movements were reported to the French authorities, though he was not arrested. However, according to one report he was arrested in Kandahar, Afghanistan, at the end of 2010 but on an unspecified, non-terrorist charge.

According to interior minister Guéant, Merah discussed his movements yesterday with members of Raid, the Recherche Assistance Intervention Dissuasion (Research, Assistance, Intervention, Deterrence) unit, a special operations commando section of the French National Police.

"With the Raid negotiators, he explained a lot about his itinerary," Guéant said. "His radicalisation took place in a Salafist ideological group and seems to have been firmed up by two journeys he made to Afghanistan and Pakistan."

Salafist is a term derived from the Sunni Islamic movement known as the Salafiyyah. Salafism has become associated with literalist, strict and puritanical approaches to Islamic theology whose adherents espouse violent jihad against civilians as a legitimate expression of Islam.

According to the French newspaper Le Monde, Merah trained with Pakistani Taliban fighters in a border tribal zone before being sent into southwestern Afghanistan to fight against Nato forces supporting the Kabul government. French intelligence sources said about 30 French fighters trained by the Taliban were believed to have taken part in attacks on Western forces in Afghanistan.

French troops are part of that Nato operation, which may explain why the first victims of the gunman's killing spree were serving paratroopers killed in Toulouse on March 11th and Montauban on March 15th.

Having shot dead three soldiers in Montauban, Merah turned his attention to the Jewish school in Toulouse where he murdered a rabbi, his two children and another pupil.

Merah wanted recognition, it seems. He telephoned France 24's editor Ebba Kalondo to tell him he had "filmed everything" with a small video camera and "intended to put the videos online".

Yesterday, Merah's mother washed her hands of her son, declining to intervene.

Said Guéant: "His mother said she did not wish to speak to him because she did not believe she could convince him and he would be deaf to her appeals."

- (Sources, unless identified, include Reuters and the BBC)