First trial for jihadist massacre in France opens

Attacker's brother charged with complicity over the killing spree that left seven dead

 Zoulikha Aziri, mother of Mohamed Merah, angered civil plaintiffs by blowing a kiss to her son in the court. Photograph:   Martin Bureau/Getty Images

Zoulikha Aziri, mother of Mohamed Merah, angered civil plaintiffs by blowing a kiss to her son in the court. Photograph: Martin Bureau/Getty Images

 

The first trial for a jihadist massacre in France opened on Monday in Paris, 5½ years after Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old Franco-Algerian, murdered three soldiers, three Jewish children and their teacher in Toulouse and Montauban.

“The facts we are about to examine are terrible,” Franck Zientara, the presiding magistrate said. Mohamed Merah was shot dead at the end of his 11-day killing spree. His older brother Abdelkader, age 35, is charged with complicity in the killings.

Because four of the murders occurred at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school, anti-Semitism has been cited as an aggravating factor. Abdelkader had been convicted of stabbing another brother, Abdelghani, because he married a Frenchwoman of Jewish origin.   

Fettah Malki, a childhood friend of the Merahs, is also on trial, for providing Mohamed with an Uzi submachine gun and a policeman’s bulletproof vest.

Mohamed Merah’s rampage opened a new era of jihadist attacks carried out by one or two individuals against easy targets and claimed on behalf of al-Qaeda or Islamic State. The trial in the Paris assize court opened just hours after what may have been jihadist attacks in Marseilles, Edmonton and Las Vegas.

Police siege

Abdelkader Merah was arrested while Mohamed was still holed up during the 32-hour police siege that ended with his death. The elder brother has been in prison ever since.

Merah sat calmly in the dock on Monday, wearing a white shirt and a bushy black beard. From time to time he surveyed the courtroom. He did not look at the seven professional magistrates who may sentence him to life in prison. Flanked by two policemen, he stared straight ahead as the charges against him were read out.

Judge Zientara read quotes from Abdelkader Merah’s interrogation. “I am proud of the way [Mohamed] died. He died as a combatant. That’s what the Koran teaches us,” he said.  

Merah’s mother, Zoulikha Aziri, veiled and dressed in black, angered civil plaintiffs by blowing a kiss to her son. She will take the witness stand on October 18th.

Bernard Squarcini, the former head of French domestic intelligence, told journalists in 2012 that Mohamed Merah was “an undetectable lone wolf”. Squarcini was ordered to testify, against his wishes, on October 19th.

Subsequent investigations established Merah was not a “lone wolf”. Though he had trained in Afghanistan and Pakistan and was on the “S” list of suspected Islamist radicals, surveillance of Merah was lifted three months before the killings.

‘The scooter killer’

There may be no physical proof of Abdelkader’s complicity. But on March 6th, 2012, five days before the first murder, Abdelkader helped Mohamed steal the Yamaha T-Max scooter that he rode to all his crimes, and which earned him the nickname “the scooter killer”. Abdelkader also gave Mohamed the black leather jacket he wore when he committed the murders.

Merah targeted Arab soldiers in the French army. His first victim, Imad Ibn Ziaten, was trying to sell his Suzuki motorcycle on the internet and indicated he was in the military, to indicate the vehicle had been well maintained.

Mohamed replied to the announcement from a computer in his mother’s apartment on the night before the killing, when Abdelkader was present. Because he filmed all his attacks with a GoPro camera attached to his helmet, investigators know that Ziaten asked Merah, “Is he your buddy?” to which Merah replied “He’s my brother.”

Four days after killing Ziaten, Mohamed Merah shot two French Arab soldiers dead as they withdrew money from an ATM. A third soldier, from the French island of Guadeloupe, was seriously wounded and is now a tetraplegic.

Abdelkader saw Mohamed at least three times during his brother’s killing spree. A few hours after Mohamed murdered the soldiers Mohamed Legouad and Abel Chennouf, the Merah brothers and their sister shared a pizza in a Toulouse restaurant. “Obviously we talked about it,” Abdelkader said during his interrogation. “He didn’t tell me it was him.”

Though he has a criminal record for violence against his mother, sisters and brothers, Abdelkader was apparently a father figure to Mohamed. When the latter was in prison in 2008, Abdelkader sent him books and CDs about Islam and jihad. Abdelkader was in contact with other radical Islamists in Toulouse, including Fabien Clain, the French convert who recorded an audiotape claiming Islamic State’s responsibility for the murder of 130 people in Paris on November 13th, 2015.

Three members of the Sandler family, Jonathan, a teacher, aged 30, and his sons Arieh (5), and Gabriel (3), were murdered by Merah. Their father and grandfather, Samuel, is one of 232 civil plaintiffs represented at the trial.

“I cannot consider as a human being someone who killed my three-year-old grandson with a soother in his mouth, and who filmed himself executing him,” Sandler told La Croix newspaper. “I often ask myself where God was that March 19th.”

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