Brother's keeper? Toulouse killings still haunt France as trial begins

Benoit Peyrucq, AFP | A court sketch made on October 2, 2017 of Abdelkader Merah in a Paris courthouse during his trial for complicity in the series of shootings committed by his jihadist brother Mohamed in Toulouse and Montauban in 2012.

A criminal trial of exceptional breadth opened Monday in Paris, five years after the Toulouse-area killing spree that rocked France and set in motion a long series of deadly homegrown terrorist attacks across the country.


On March 11, 2012, Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old who had served time for petty crimes, shot dead an off-duty paratrooper he had lured to a Toulouse parking lot under the pretext of buying the soldier’s motorcycle. Merah could be seen on the video he made of the incident asking his soldier-victim about his work and saying, “You kill my brothers, I kill you,” before shooting the man twice.

Four days later, the scooter-riding Merah would shoot dead two more soldiers on a street near their barracks in nearby Montauban. A third soldier was injured with a bullet through the spine and would become quadriplegic.

Finally, on March 19, Merah, outfitted with a GoPro camera, struck a Jewish school in Toulouse, killing a 30-year-old teacher rabbi, his two young sons aged three and five, as well as the school director’s eight-year-old daughter before again speeding off on a scooter.

On March 22, 2012, after a massive manhunt and a 32-hour standoff carried live on television nationwide, Merah was killed in a firefight with the RAID, an elite police unit, at his Toulouse apartment.

Merah’s killings, a month before French presidential elections that would see the Socialist François Hollande defeat incumbent conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, rocked France to its core. They marked the first Islamist attacks on French soil since 1995 and the first of what has become a long series of essentially similar attacks.

Who is on trial?

In the month-long trial that begins Monday, Merah’s older brother, Abdelkader, is charged with complicity in terrorism. The 35-year-old, an ex-convict long known to authorities as a radical Islamist and nicknamed “Bin Laden” in his neighbourhood, is accused of knowingly helping the younger Merah to prepare the deadly assaults, helping his brother, for one, steal the scooter used in each of his three separate attacks.

Abdelkader Merah is known to have said of his murderer sibling, “I am proud of my brother… Every Muslim would love to be killed by his enemy” – but he has said he did not know beforehand what his younger brother had planned. Detained in custody since shortly after the 2012 killings, Abdelkader faces a life sentence if convicted.

Fettah Malki, 35, is also on trial. He is accused of having provided Mohamed Merah with a “police”-emblazoned bullet-proof vest, a gun and ammunition. Facing 20 years in jail if convicted, Malki, like Abdelkader Merah, denies having had knowledge of the killer’s intentions.

The case’s investigating magistrates have said that Abdelkader could not have “been unaware of his brother’s jihadist orientation, which he himself had contributed to shaping”, noting the repeated contact between the two men before the killings, Abdelkader’s stays in Egypt, and the mujahedin’s guide discovered in his home providing tips for escaping intelligence services’ surveillance.

Eric Dupond-Moretti, Abdelkader Merah’s defence lawyer, meanwhile, has said his client was being sent to trial “by default” because his killer brother is dead. “There is no evidence in the case file to convict him, that’s what I think, that’s what I’ll say,” the lawyer told BFM-TV in February.

One of France’s elite defense lawyers, Dupond-Moretti raised similar flags from the start, questioning the notion of complicity in this case. “Assuming that [Abdelkader] has contaminated his brother, it does not make a complicity in murders,” he said in 2012. “Are we innocent or guilty of being brothers?”

A third Merah brother, Abdelghani Merah, is cited as a witness in the trial. He has unambiguously accused Abdelkader of pushing his brother to commit the 2012 attacks. “Mohamed Merah was manipulated by an entire group, in particular Olivier Corel, ‘the White Emir’, Sabri Essid, Abdelkader Merah…” he told France Inter radio on Monday, namechecking his older brother alongside known radical Islamists. “They worked [Mohamed], step by step, little by little, they ate up his mind, he no longer thought for himself,” Abdelghani continued. “They sent Mohamed Merah to do what they didn’t feel like doing because they know that once one kills in the name of that doctrine, the end of the road is death. He was remote-controlled, like a marionette.”

Unusual scale

The trial is set to take place over 24 days and involves 23 lawyers, 49 witnesses, 11 expert witnesses and at least 232 plaintiffs. As many as 139 reporters are said to have been accredited for the massive trial.

What the case means to France

Nearly 250 people have been killed in France since Merah’s first victim was shot in that Toulouse parking lot – a high in Western Europe – and no other European country has seen as many young people travel to join Islamic State group and other extremist fighters in Iraq and Syria. Merah himself had travelled to Pakistan to train with extremists linked to al Qaeda.

“I said, ‘Watch out, there are Merahs everywhere! You have to do something,’” Latifa Ibn Ziaten, the mother of Merah’s first victim, Imad, the paratrooper, has said. “But, unfortunately, no one heard me at first. I think they believed it was just a mother’s grief.”

“France entered a new era [with the Merah killings],” Mathieu Guidère, a professor of Islamic studies in Paris, told AP. “Beginning in 2012, we entered an age of terrorism, where before we believed ourselves protected. It was a turning point in French history,” the author of “Islamic Fundamentalism” added.

“In attacking, in killing at the same time soldiers and Jewish citizens, [Mohamed Merah] smashed two taboos and opened the path psychologically for those who came after, who saw a model in him and who said to themselves they could do the same thing, if not worse,” Guidère continued.

Indeed, the case is also in a sense the trial of a more naïve time. Merah, for one, while flagged as a potential threat to national security, nevertheless travelled without hindrance in 2011, six months before his deadly attacks, to Pakistan via Oman, which Le Monde calls “the major element that led to missing the future ‘scooter killer’”. The French daily notes that “due to European unwieldiness and sensitive debates over data protection” the creation of a Passenger Name Record (PNR) was only approved by the European Parliament in mid-2016 and that the modifications to the Schengen borders code necessary to enlarge border checks to European citizens only came into effect in April 2017.

Next week, France will vote on a law that would make permanent many of the measures the country imposed as part of a state of emergency that began after November 2015 attacks in the Paris area that claimed 130 lives at the hands of mostly French and Belgian radicals in the name of the Islamic State group.

“This trial is historic. Merah is dead, but it is essential to understand what happened for the memory of the victims and their families,” said lawyer Patrick Klugman, representing Samuel Sandler, the father and grandfather of Merah victims killed at the Ozar Hatorah school, as the trial opened on Monday.

But inside the courtroom, Klugman’s client wore his emotions on his sleeve. Sitting in the front row, Sandler swore at the Merah brothers’ mother, who reportedly blew a kiss to her son in the dock, and Abdelkader’s wife before a gendarme called him to order. “I expect nothing of this trial,” Sandler told CNEWS. “The only thing I am expecting is that he doesn’t get out of prison… that he rots in a hole.”

A verdict is expected in early November.

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