Nearly two weeks of terror in France came to an end Thursday, when an assault by elite police forces left self-declared al-Qaeda member and avowed serial killer Mohammed Merah dead in the southwest city Toulouse. The raid was ordered around 11:30 a.m. — 32 hours after a siege of Merah’s apartment building began Wednesday morning — and unleashed almost 10 minutes of gunfire between the assailant and French commando forces. According to initial reports citing police authorities, Merah was killed trying to flee his apartment as he sprayed security forces with fire.
“It was like a war zone,” one unidentified resident of the eastern Toulouse neighborhood where the confrontation occurred told French TV news channel LCI. “The firing just kept going on and on. It was like a war.”
The dramatic raid capped the effort to identify and arrest the perpetrator of three separate attacks since March 11 that left seven people dead — including a teacher and three small children from Toulouse’s Ozar Hatorah Jewish school on Monday. During his standoff with police, Merah admitted to having killed three French army soldiers prior to that strike to punish the “French army because of its foreign interventions.” Officials say Merah also spoke proudly of his visits to Afghanistan and Pakistan to receive combat training from Islamist extremists and said his recent terrorism campaign was intended to serve as “revenge for Palestinian children.”
Paris prosecutor François Molins said Wednesday that Merah “expressed no regret apart from not having had time to claim more victims” and revealed his plans to kill three more people that the police siege had interrupted. Though French intelligence services knew of Merah’s Islamist extremism and travels to Pakistan and Afghanistan, over two years of surveillance in France left them feeling he posed no immediate security risk. It remains unclear whether Merah’s methodical campaign was undertaken under instruction from extremist leaders he met abroad — one of several contradictory claims he made during his negotiations with police — or if something else triggered his killing spree.
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French government and security officials had repeatedly stressed their desire to bring Merah to justice alive — an objective that in part explained continued talks after several promises to surrender by the suspect came to nothing. But after Merah stopped negotiating or showing signs of life during the early hours of Thursday, authorities became concerned the suspect might have killed himself or could be preparing a more deadly defense of his position. As a result, the decision was made Thursday morning to infiltrate the building and storm the apartment through doors and windows. At that time, security officials quoted in press reports say, Merah emerged from his bathroom firing heavily at police and was cut down seeking to jump from a window. His lifeless body was found outside, one story down, with cause of death being gunshots, Molins said. During a postraid press conference, Molins also said several guns, a stock of ammunition and materials for making fire bombs were found in Merah’s apartment. He added that police found a small video camera Merah strapped to himself to record all three of his attacks, including images of each shooting murder Molins called “graphic.”
According to French Interior Minister Claude Guéant, the assault decision was taken after the final contacts with Merah showed him hardening his position. He was also making increasingly violent comments — including the promise to die fighting and to kill police officers as he did so. In spite of the intensity of gunfire, Guéant said, injuries among police forces were limited to one officer wounded in the foot and two others left in a state of shock.
Despite the controversial revelation that French intelligence services were aware of Merah’s background and beliefs, his evolution toward jihadist violence demonstrates the difficulty that radicals of his type pose to security forces. Though his older brother was investigated but never charged in a 2007 inquiry into a Toulouse-area network known to have been organizing travel by aspiring extremists to “theaters of jihad” like Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan for training, Merah himself appeared to have been a self-made radical fighter.
Merah is thought to have overseen his own embrace of jihadi ideology — outside the circles of radical recruitment and instruction that police forces monitor to identify recruits. His trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan were similarly self-organized and financed and also out of sight from the known jihadi logistical networks under watch by intelligence services. Afghan police had signaled his presence and training to French authorities after Merah was stopped in Afghanistan in 2010, expelling him to France as a probable foreign extremist. But despite his evident dedication to seeing the lands and learning the tools of jihad, Merah gave no sign of contemplating or plotting violence back home. Instead, he continued looking in vain for work as a mechanic, bouncing from one employment rejection to another and leading what neighbors said was the otherwise outwardly normal life of a young Toulousain.
On Thursday morning, that image, that neighborhood and Merah’s actions came to a final, bloody halt in an explosion of gunfire.