The boy next door who ‘brought France to its knees’
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A “polite and shy” child from Toulouse, Mohamed Merah went on to carry out the worst terrorist shootings in France for more than 15 years. FRANCE 24 takes a look at the 23-year-old who claimed to have “brought France to its knees”.
Neighbours describe a kind and polite teenager who was interested in cars, girls and football. But at just 23, Mohamed Merah had become France’s most sought-after killer, bringing about his own spectacular death after a 32-hour stand-off with an elite police force of 300 and under the glare of the world’s media.
Shot in the head by special police forces after jumping from his bathroom window – guns still blazing – on Thursday morning, Merah had spent the last 32 hours of his life holed up in his Toulouse apartment. Only two weeks previously he had been seen in a local nightclub, regional press reported.
But what happened in between would result in the deaths of four paratroopers, three children and a rabbi, as he embarked on a cruel killing spree in the name of his “brothers” killed in the Afghanistan conflict.
Merah was born to Algerian parents in 1988, and grew up on a council estate in north Toulouse with his two brothers and two sisters. “He was a friend of my son,” a former neighbour told FRANCE 24 correspondent Ségolène Allamandou on Wednesday. “He used to come round for dinner, play football… Nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, he was very sweet and quite shy.”
Another neighbour described the young Merah as “very polite” – a trait confirmed by FRANCE 24 producer Ebba Kalondo, who received an unexpected phone call from Merah at 1am on Wednesday morning, just hours before French police surrounded his home. “He was very polite, very rational, extremely articulate and well-spoken,” she told journalists in the office after a ten-minute conversation with Merah.
Merah was nonetheless a delinquent from an early age, acquiring some 15 charges for petty crimes, including driving without a license. He was jailed in 2007 for over a year for violent assault. It was during this time, Merah’s lawyer, Christian Etelin, told reporters on Wednesday, that Merah became interested in the conservative Islamic branch of Salafism.
In 2010, Merah applied to join the French army, only to change his mind at the last minute. Soon after, he travelled to Pakistan, according to investigators, but was arrested by the US army and returned to France. In 2011 he spent two months in Afghanistan, where he learnt to make bombs, Paris prosecutor François Molins said. It was during this time that some of his neighbours became concerned by his behaviour at home.
A resident of Merah’s Izards estate told French media Wednesday that Merah had walked through the neighbourhood in 2010 wielding a sword and shouting “Allah Akhbar”, or “God is great” in Arabic. Another neighbour told Breton daily Le Telegramme that she filed two police complaints against Merah after this occasion, when she says he threatened her family.
“It was my family he targeted that day,” she told Le Telegramme. Her teenage son returned home at midnight after being “kidnapped” by Merah, she said. “He took him into his car and then to his home, playing a CD of chanting he claimed to be readings from the Koran, and then showed him horrible videos of beheadings in Afghanistan.” After her son retuned home and recounted the story, Merah returned and threatened the family, hitting her daughter in the face. “The police knew how dangerous and how radical he was,” she told the daily newspaper.
She went on to describe Merah’s “changeable” personality. “He looks as sweet as a lamb – if you met him in the street you’d offer him a drink. He’d be out drinking a beer […] dressed in western clothing, driving a scooter. The next thing you know, he’d be running home to pray.”
Merah’s lawyer, Etelin, who had known the suspect for over eight years, said that he never spoke to him about Islam but knew that he had been “radicalised” in Afghanistan. “I warned him against misdemeanours,” he told BFM TV on Thursday. “But I was just talking about petty crimes.”
Merah worked in car factories but failed to keep a stable job. Nonetheless, he managed to live a comfortable life, funding trips abroad and keeping expensive vehicles. He “occasionally visited” his mother, who had recently moved away from the neighbourhood he was brought up in. He allegedly reproached his mother for the divorce of his parents, according to neighbours.
His lawyer said on Wednesday that his mother “barely had any influence over him”. His brother, Abdelkader, who is also reported to be a Salafist, was arrested before police surrounded Merah’s home and remains in custody.
Before his death on Thursday, Merah told police investigators that he was proud to have “brought France to its knees” but regretted not killing more people. A self-proclaimed member of the French branch of al Qaeda, he told FRANCE 24 on Wednesday that he carried out the shootings in protest against France’s decision to ban women from wearing the full Islamic veil and because of the country’s military presence in Afghanistan.
He also claimed he targeted Jewish children at a school in Toulouse on Monday to avenge Palestinian children killed by the Israeli military. Merah claims to have filmed his attacks and posted the footage online, although the images have yet to be retrieved.