French police have pinned down a self-declared jihadist believed to be the killer of seven people in southwestern France in the past 10 days—including three small children and a rabbi outside a Jewish school in Toulouse on Monday. The suspect has been barricaded inside a house in eastern Toulouse, where officials say he has claimed membership with al Qaeda. French Interior Minister Claude Guéant said the 24-year-old justified the fatal shootings of the four people outside the Ozar Hatorah school as “revenge for Palestinian children,” and indicated that the killings of three soldiers in two previous attacks were intended as vengeance against the “French army because of its foreign interventions.” The siege began at around 3 a.m. local time on Wednesday, and reports indicate the heavily armed assailant may be preparing to give himself up. French police indicated that he’s resumed talking to negotiators.
According to news reports, Guéant said the suspect—a man of Algerian descent identified as Mohammed Merah—is known to have traveled to the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan for training with radical Islamist groups that he claims membership with, notably al Qaeda. Reuters is reporting that the suspect had been jailed in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2007 for planting bombs, but escaped months later during a Taliban prison break. Both his identity and overseas travel had been known to French intelligence services, though it hadn’t been felt he was an immediate security threat. French anti-terrorism officials have told TIME repeatedly—including recently—that a number of young men from the Toulouse region are among several in France known to have sought or succeeded in obtaining armed training in Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and other “theaters of jihad.” That information—as well as the contact the suspect reportedly made with his first soldier victim before that shooting, and the work he had done on a scooter he allegedly used in all three attacks—allowed investigators to locate and corner the man Wednesday.
(PHOTOS: Toulouse Gun Suspect Under Siege)
The siege came as funerals for the four people murdered at the Jewish school were being held in Israel on Wednesday. Those memorial services nearly coincided with the burials of the three soldiers shot with the same .45 caliber gun in attacks on March 11 and March 15. On Tuesday, France came together to mourn the horrific slayings at the Jewish school and unite in support behind its shocked and worried Jewish community. And as the siege continued outside the suspect’s house Wednesday, news reports from Toulouse quoted Jewish leaders, municipal officials and residents who’ve been living under the maximum terrorist threat level since Monday expressing guarded optimism that the nightmare might well be over.
Although there have long been fears that radicals returning from training or combat activity overseas would rapidly move toward terrorist activity, one French security official recently told TIME, “We’ve yet to see that happen, but have to remain wary because we know anyone who goes there for training doesn’t forget about their motives once they’re back home.” Other French intelligence officers have told TIME that it’s believed around 30 or so extremists have returned from training abroad and are now present in Europe—perhaps a third of them in France. These include young radicals in and around Toulouse who had sought training in Pakistan and Afghanistan but were prevented from leaving the country by police. Still others were only identified once they’d obtained their ideological and combat instruction abroad.
French security officials—none of whom were available for comment Wednesday—had said that while the failure of such returned jihadists to go into action was a relief and surprise, all were kept under watch as potential ticking bombs. “This isn’t the kind of thing you get into unless you’re entirely committed, and isn’t a mindset prone to shifting back to normal once these people return to normal environments,” the security official recently noted.
If so, how did the Toulouse suspect manage to stage three attacks, killing seven people, before he was stopped? That is one of the questions that will inevitably be asked once the crisis is resolved, but it’s one that will cut both ways. While critics will doubtless claim authorities should have been constantly watching—or perhaps detained—a radical Islamist who underwent training with extremist groups known for terror activity, it also seems clear that intelligence already gathered on the man allowed for him to be located and identified relatively quickly. A break in the case came when he was tied to the IP address of a computer used to contact the first victim in the spree, who’d placed an ad to sell a motorbike. The tip from a mechanic whom the suspect reportedly contacted to repaint the scooter he used in the first two strikes is also said to have aided the effort.
By mid-morning Wednesday, there seemed to be little to do but wait until the suspect gave himself up. Guéant has stressed his desire to take the suspected assailant alive and is confident he’ll surrender by the end of the day. All attempts to convince the man to give in have so far failed. Early on, police brought his mother to appeal to her son to end the standoff and avoid any more bloodshed. Reports say officials dropped that effort when the woman refused to try to talk to her son, saying it had been years since he listened to her.