Investigators have found no signs the suspected gunman behind a deadly string of attacks in southern France was under orders from al-Qaeda or any militant group, a top French official said Friday - disputing Mohamed Merah’s claim of terrorist ties before he died in a shootout with commandos.
France’s prime minister and other officials have been fending off suggestions that anti-terrorism authorities failed to adequately monitor the 23-year-old Merah, who had been known to them for years before he carried out three deadly shooting attacks this month.
Merah, a Frenchman of Algerian descent who claimed links to Qaeda, was killed in a dramatic gunfight with police Thursday after a 32-hour standoff at his Toulouse apartment. Prosecutors said he filmed himself carrying out the attacks that began March 11, killing three Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi and three French paratroopers with close-range shots to the head. Another Jewish student and a paratrooper were wounded.
An autopsy of the gunman’s body showed he received two fatal bullet wounds to the left temple and to the abdomen - but that he was hit by some 20 bullets, mainly in the arms and legs, judicial and police officials said.
The head of the elite police unit, Amaury de Hauteclocque - whose mission was to take Merah alive - insisted his men fired only in self-defense.
Investigators looking for possible accomplices honed in on Merah’s 29-year-old brother, Abdelkader, and the brother’s girlfriend, described by one official as espousing an ultraconservative form of Islam. Both were detained early Wednesday, along with Merah’s mother.
The brother and girlfriend were being transferred Saturday to police anti-terrorist headquarters in Paris for further questioning. Abdelkader Merah had been implicated in a 2007 network that sent militant fighters to Iraq, but was never charged. Merah's mother was to be released.
Meanwhile, a senior official close to the investigation told The Associated Press that despite Merah’s claims to negotiators of Qaeda links, there was no sign he had “trained or been in contact with organized groups or jihadists.”
The former auto body worker had traveled twice to Afghanistan in 2010 and to Pakistan in 2011, and said he trained with Qaeda in the Pakistani militant stronghold of Waziristan. He had been on a U.S. no-fly list since 2010.
The official said Merah might have made the claim because Qaeda is a well-known “brand,” adding there was “absolutely no evidence allowing us to believe that he was commissioned by Qaeda to carry out these attacks.”
Merah was questioned by French intelligence officers last November after his second trip to Afghanistan, and was cooperative and provided a USB key with tourist-like photos of his trip, the official told the AP.
While he was under surveillance last year, Merah was never seen contacting any radicals and went to nightclubs, not mosques, the official said. People who knew him confirmed that he was at a nightclub in recent weeks.
Merah told negotiators during the police standoff that he was able to buy a large arsenal of weapons thanks to years of petty theft, the official said.
France defends Toulouse operation
France’s interior minister has launched a robust defense of the police as criticism grows of the operation that ended in the dramatic death of a gunman who killed seven people, three of them children.
Already under pressure over accusations that intelligence failures allowed Merah to carry out three deadly attacks before being tracked down, police also face questions over the raid that ended in his death on Thursday.
Interior Minister Claude Gueant told Saturday’s Le Figaro that Merah was a “terrorist acting alone.”
“It’s the first time that France has been confronted with this particular type of action,” he said, dismissing as “irresponsible” criticism of the police and in particular the operation that ended in his death.
There were hopes the gunman would be taken alive so that he could be put on trial. France is home to western Europe’s largest Jewish and Muslim communities.
But police could not have used tear gas to put Merah to sleep as that was illegal under international conventions, Gueant said.
“The men who carried out this operation are very great professionals...,” he added.
The intelligence services “did their job perfectly well. They identified Mohamed Merah when he made his trips,” Prime Minister Francois Fillon told French radio on Friday.
The head of France’s DCRI domestic intelligence agency, Bernard Squarcini, told Le Monde newspaper there was little more that security services could have done to prevent Merah’s atrocities.
Among those criticizing the way the siege ended was a veteran police officer who said there was a lack of clear tactics by the elite RAID unit involved.
Christian Prouteau, who founded the GIGN, another elite unit drawn from the national police’s rivals in the gendarmerie, said if they had used tear gas against Merah they would have had a chance of capturing him alive.
French police unions reacted sharply to Prouteau’s comments.
But some Israeli security experts were even harsher in their criticism.
“The French security forces failed in their mission,” former special forces officer Lior Lotan wrote in the top-selling Yediot Aharonot daily.
“Either there was a problem in the operational planning or they had to go into action before completing all their preparations,” he added.
Former commando officer Uri Bar-Lev wrote in the rival Maariv newspaper: “This is not how a professional unit to combat terror behaves.”
And Alec Ron, a former head of the Israel police commando unit, told Israeli public radio the operation appeared to be characterized by “utter confusion and unprofessionalism.”
“It seems to me like an absolute disgrace,” he added.
A Qaeda-linked group, Jund al-Khilafah, claimed responsibility on jihadist websites for Merah’s killings.
But intelligence agency chief Squarcini said Merah had not followed the usual path taken by Islamist extremists and was not part of any network.
“According to statements he made during the siege, he self-radicalized in prison, on his own, reading the Koran,” he said.