As the French authorities continue to face off against the man allegedly responsible for seven murders, including the shooting of four people outside a Jewish school earlier this week, a clearer picture of just who he is is emerging.
The suspect is Mohammed Merah, a 24-year-old Frenchman of Algerian origin, The Telegraph reports.
He has said he is a jihadist for al-Qaeda, and that the killings were in retaliation against French military postings overseas (especially the Middle East), the French ban on burkas in public, and to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children, French Interior Minister Claude Gueant told reporters.
Merah was born in Toulouse on October 10, 1988, according to AFP. He was part of a group of around 15 followers of Islamic fundamentalist Salafist ideology in Toulouse (although they are not thought to be involved in the shootings), where he lived in the northern Izards neighbourhood, Gueant told the agency. The group, called Forsane Alizza, or Knights of Glory, was banned by the French government in January for trying to recruit people to fight in Afghanistan, CNN reports.
“He isn’t the big bearded guy that you can imagine, you know the cliche,” a young man from Merah’s Toulouse neighbourhood told Reuters. “When you know a person well you just can’t believe they could have done something like this.” Those who knew him described him as a slight, polite man who liked football and motorbikes and did not seem particularly religious.
Merah allegedly twice tried (and failed) to join the French army, once in Lille in 2008, and once in Toulouse two years later, according to AFP.
He had also made two trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and authorities in Afghanistan confirmed to Reuters that Merah had been sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for bomb-making in Kandahar in 2007, but reportedly escaped months later in a massive Taliban prison break — though it appears that the Kandahar authorities have denied this on Twitter.
Merah had been under surveillance by French intelligence (DCRI) for years, Gueant told reporters, but he had never been suspected of being involved in planning any major crimes. Both his brother, who Gueant says is also a believer of the Salafist ideology, and his Algerian mother have been arrested. His mother has refused to talk to her son, saying she no longer has any influence over him, The Telegraph reports.
A key to tracking the suspect was the dark grey Yamaha motorcycle with a white frame — stolen on March 6 — that he used in all three attacks, sources told the AP. One of the suspect’s brothers went to a motorcycle dealer to ask how to modify the GPS tracker, raising suspicions. The vendor then contacted police.
Merah, who had initially announced his intention to surrender, has so far refused to give up. At the time of writing, he was still barricaded in the building below, armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle, a Mini-Uzi 9mm machine pistol and other handguns.
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