Suspected Islamist serial killer Mohamed Merah is a 23-year-old French petty criminal of Algerian origin who has spent time in Pakistan and Afghanistan and claims to be an AZl-Qaeda operative.
Born in the southwestern French city of Toulouse on October 10, 1988, Merah had been tracked for years by France’s DCRI domestic intelligence service, but nothing suggested that he was preparing a major crime.
Interior Minister Claude Gueant said he was part of a group of around 15 followers of Islamic fundamentalist Salafist ideology in Toulouse.
He then made two trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan, although Gueant said that he did not think Merah had visited any militant training camps while there.
Afghan security forces detained Merah on Dec. 19, 2007, and he was sentenced to three years in jail for planting bombs in the southern province of Kandahar, the Taliban's birthplace, Kandahar prison chief Ghulam Faruq said, citing prison documents.
Merah escaped along with up to 1,000 prisoners, including 400 Taliban insurgents, during an attack on southern Afghanistan's main Sarposa Prison in June 2008, when the Taliban blew apart the main gate with a big truck bomb.
The high-security prison, on Kandahar's southern outskirts, has separate compounds for ordinary criminals and inmates being held for political and insurgency-related offences. Merah was likely in the political section, prison sources said.
He was in Afghanistan at a time when Afghan security officials were pleading for more international help, saying more than 4,000 foreign fighters had flocked to the country to aid the Taliban, most of them from Chechnya, North Africa and Pakistan.
It was not clear where Merah fled to after he escaped from prison and how or when he arrived in France, but many foreign fighters left the conflict-racked country as a surge in NATO reinforcements gained momentum in 2009.
The man suspected of calmly shooting dead three children and a teacher at a Toulouse Jewish school as well as three French paratroopers in two other attacks recently failed to get into the army, a French police source said.
Witnesses have described the attacker as “white”, around 1.70 meters (5’5”) tall and slender. He also reportedly wore an extreme sports camera on a chest harness during at least one of the attacks.
Gueant said on Tuesday that the man behind the killings was “someone who is very cold, very determined, very in control of himself, very cruel.”
Merah reportedly told negotiators trying to get him to surrender from a flat in Toulouse that the Jewish school attack was to avenge Palestinian children killed by Israel.
He was less explicit about the troop killings, but said the fact his victims were, like him, of North African origin was not why they were targeted.
He wanted to attack the French army because of its foreign interventions, Merah reportedly said.
Several young men approached the police cordon outside Merah’s flat on Wednesday to offer to talk him into surrender. One of them, who declined to give his name, said Merah worked in car body work.
The father of one of Merah’s neighbors said that the suspect helped them carry a sofa into their flat around 10 months ago.
“He’s a normal person, like anyone else in the street who would give you a hand to carry a sofa,” Eric Lambert said, adding that among his son’s neighbors, Merah “wasn’t the one who made the most noise.”
While the domestic intelligence agency was tracking Merah, he reportedly carried out 18 minor crimes, some with violence.
Dominique Thomas, an expert in radical Islam, told AFP that the killer’s modus operandi and logistics show that he has little means and that apparently he does not belong to a network.
Former French spy chief Louis Caprioli said that the suspect must have had outside help to get to Afghanistan and Pakistan, although he could nevertheless be a “lone wolf”.
Merah’s brother is allegedly also a Salafist and has been detained by police along with his partner, presumably his wife given his reportedly conservative beliefs.
When anti-terrorist police brought Merah’s mother to the besieged flat to try to get him to surrender, she said that she no longer had any influence over him.