A third man? An informant? New questions dog Toulouse shooting probe
As investigators look into this month’s deadly shootings in southwest France, intriguing new leads and questions surrounding gunman Mohamed Merah have arisen.
Days after Toulouse gunman Mohamed Merah was killed at the end of a 32-hour siege last week, investigators and reporters probing the attacks that “brought France to its knees” have uncovered a number of intriguing new leads, some credible and some not quite as credible.
The video footage
Shortly after Mohamed Merah killed four people at a Toulouse Jewish school in his third and final attack, French prosecutors disclosed that the gunman had filmed his attacks, which occurred on March 11, 15 and 19 in the southwestern French cities of Toulouse and Montauban. Prosecutors said the 23-year-old gunman wore a miniature camera strapped to his chest.
Following Merah’s death after a 32-hour police siege, the Al Jazeera TV station confirmed that it had received video footage along with a letter in poorly written French.
The images were contained on a USB key, sent with the letter, to the Paris bureau of the Qatar-based TV network. The letter claimed the killings were carried out in the name of al Qaeda, according to Zied Tarrouche, the station's Paris bureau chief.
Al Jazeera executives however decided not to broadcast the explicit footage - which they say shows an edited version of the attacks in chronological order - following calls from French President Nicolas Sarkozy as well as the families of some of the victims and the gunman.
According to the French weekly magazine, Le Point, there was another USB key in Merah’s pocket at the time of his death. The contents of the second USB key have not been disclosed.
The ‘third man’ theory
Questions about a possible “third man” complicit in the attacks intensified after French officials said Merah was not the person who mailed the USB key to Al Jazeera.
The gunman’s elder brother, Abdelkader Merah, was detained on Wednesday, March 21, as police laid siege to his younger brother’s Toulouse apartment. The brother has since been in police custody and is under investigation for complicity to murder.
That opened the question of a “third man” who had mailed the USB key containing footage of the attacks to Al Jazeera.
Merah used his brother Abdelkader’s email to buy a scooter from his first murder victim. Police sources say that at a closed hearing in Toulouse during the siege, Abdelkader said he was "proud" of Mohamed’s killings and he admitted helping his younger brother steal a Yamaha T-Max scooter used in all seven murders. But he denied any knowledge of his brother's murderous plans.
Abdelkader also told police that when he helped his brother steal the Yamaha T-Max scooter on March 6, there was another person in the car with the Merah brothers. His identity has not been revealed.
Character profile: Loner, loser, wannabe soldier, informant, killer
Investigators are building a character profile of the killer, putting together elements of Mohamed Merah’s life like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The final picture has critical security implications since it could determine not just the motivations for the attacks, but also if Merah conforms to the “lone wolf” model or if - and to what extent - he had jihadist links.
Following his death, a picture has emerged of a troubled young man brought up by a single mother, torn between conflicting identities. He had run-ins with the law, yet attempted to join French security services and even possibly co-operated with intelligence agencies.
* Loner, loser
One of the leading exponents of the troubled, “lone wolf” theory has been Christian Etelin, a French advocate who represented Merah for numerous delinquency convictions.
Etelin has told the Associated Press on March 29 that his now-slain client had separated from his “wife” days before his first attack and that Merah had “psychological difficulties”.
Earlier reports gave no indication that Merah had a wife. But Etelin told the AP that the couple were married in an Islamic ceremony in December, but did not have a civil ceremony - which is required for the marriage to be recognized under French law.
Etelin has been critical of Merah’s father, who he said was not a presence in his son’s life after he divorced Merah’s mother when the boy was five. The father, who lives in Algeria, has told FRANCE 24 that he plans to sue the French state for failing to capture his son alive.
From interviews with Merah’s friends and neighbours, a picture has emerged of a man split between two worlds: partying and drinking with friends while scouring the Internet for violent Islamist content and travelling to the Afghanistan-Pakistan region for jihadist training.
* Wannabe soldier
Merah’s record of petty crimes seems at odds with his attempts to join the French army in January 2008 and the French Foreign Legion in July 2010. He failed both times.
The French army rejected his application following an inquiry into his criminal record. According to the French daily, Le Monde, Merah spent just one night at the French Foreign Legion recruitment centre before leaving of his own accord.
* An informant?
Questions have also arisen over whether Merah could have been an informant for the French intelligence services. The allegations were sparked when Bernard Squarcini, head of France’s DCRI domestic intelligence agency, told Le Monde that during the 32-hour police siege, Merah had asked to speak to a Toulouse-based DCRI officer who had interrogated him when he returned from a trip to Pakistan in November 2011.
According to Squarcini, Merah told the agent – a woman of North African origin – that he had meant to use the pretext of having a few tip-offs for her to fix a meeting. “But actually, I was going to bump you off,” Squarcini quoted Merah as saying.
The theory was amplified by comments by Yves Bonnet, former head of the DST (Directioon de la Surveillance du Territoire), a French counter-espionage service that was merged to form the DCRI. In an interview with the Toulouse paper La Dépeche du Midi, Bonnet said it was striking that Merah had a handler: “that is not an innocent thing”.
But Bonnet is known to be a rival of Squarcini, who has since denied the allegations that Merah was a DCRI informant.