Siege in Toulouse Wears On as Details of Suspect’s Jihadist Past Emerge

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Jean-Philippe Arles / Reuters

French police and emergency services gather on a street during a raid on a five-story building to arrest a suspect in the killings of three children and a rabbi on Monday at a Jewish school, in Toulouse March 21, 2012.

The fear and tension wore on in France as elite police officers continued their standoff with a self-declared al-Qaeda militant who claimed responsibility for the slayings of seven people in three attacks since March 11. Security forces trapped the man identified as Mohammed Merah, 23, in a Toulouse apartment early Wednesday, but repeated promises by the assailant to give himself up were never acted upon. Then, on Thursday morning, French Interior Minister Claude Gueant said the suspect had stopped communicating with authorities and may have committed suicide, according to press reports. “We hope that he is still alive,” Gueant told reporters. A couple of gunshots were heard during the night, but the interior minister said the source of the shots was unclear. 

The siege took place just miles from the Ozar Hatorah school where four Jewish people—including three small children—were coldly and methodically gunned down three days earlier. The week before that, the alleged killer used the same .45 revolver and scooter to assassinate three ethnic Arab soldiers in separate attacks in Toulouse and nearby Montauban. During his marathon standoff with authorities, Merah described his killing spree as  “revenge for Palestinian children” and vengeance against the “French army because of its foreign interventions.” Officials said the police raid had disrupted Merah’s plans to kill another soldier Wednesday morning—just one of multiple assassinations he is believed to have had in store.

 

Though more information will come out once Merah is apprehended and interrogated (if he’s taken alive), an astonishing number of details about the suspect’s actions—and the massive manhunt that cornered him—have already emerged. According to government and police officials, Merah was known to have received training from extremist Islamist groups during trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011. Despite that, French intelligence services who were alerted to Merah’s jihadist activity and his return to France did not identify anything indicating he was an imminent security risk during nearly two years of surveillance. Police in Afghanistan clearly felt otherwise. On one occasion, they turned Merah away from the border, instigating his eventual expulsion to France as a probable jihadist militant. Unconfirmed press reports also claim Merah had been imprisoned in Kandahar after being caught with bomb materials, but escaped during a jail break there.

(PHOTOS: Toulouse Gun Suspect Under Siege)

It’s still unknown whether Merah returned to France in 2011 with a plan to commit serial killings in a campaign of terror—though he’s made such claims in what has often been conflicting statements to police. However, officials say he makes no bones about his extremist associations and views violence as a legitimate form of justice. François Molins—the Paris prosecutor who takes the lead role in terror inquires under France’s centralized system—said in a televised press conference in Toulouse on Tuesday that the suspect freely admits membership with al-Qaeda, and is proud of the training he received from fellow jihadists for terror purposes.

“He expressed no regret apart from not having had time to claim more victims,” Molins said, noting the limits Merah said he’d set for terror missions with his al-Qaeda teachers. “He explained he didn’t have the soul for suicide—he doesn’t have the soul of a martyr, and preferred to kill (others) while remaining alive (himself)… He boasted of having brought France to its knees.” According to Molins, Merah told police during the standoff that began at 3 a.m. Wednesday that the operation had disrupted his plan to gun down another soldier as he left his home that morning. Molins revealed that Merah had identified two police officers as targets, as well.

(MORE: French Police Corner Suspected Toulouse Killer Claiming Al-Qaeda Membership)

Molins also described the massive manhunt to identify and find suspects in the slaying spree. Authorities deployed more than 200 investigators, interrogated 200 people, examined 7 million pieces of telephone data and scanned thousands of Internet connections. The big break came when one of 576 IP addresses linked to an online advertisement posted by the first murdered soldier was traced to Merah’s mother. That led police to Merah’s brother, who’d been investigated but not charged in 2007 for suspected involvement in a network transporting recruits to jihadist training camps. He was known for his rigid Islamic positions and beliefs, including a view he held with Merah that France’s law banning the burqa was an assault on Muslim women and a slight to Islam.

Focus on Merah himself uncovered convictions for violent crimes and re-established his travels to Pakistan and Afghanistan. A tip from a motorcycle dealership in Toulouse also revealed that Merah or his brother had asked for professional advice on removing a GPS device from a scooter so it could be painted. Video analysis and other clues from Monday’s shootings at the Jewish school indicated the scooter used in the attack had recently been painted—probably to mask its identity as the same one used in the previous assaults.

By Tuesday afternoon, officials felt confident enough that one of the Merah brothers was involved in the killings that plans were begun to surround their respective dwellings and prepare for their arrests. At 11:30 p.m. on Tuesday, the decision was made to move ahead with the raids, which began hours later. After two officers were shot at trying to get into Merah’s house, police surrounded the property and the standoff began. As time passed—and gunshots and explosions continued to be heard from the siege site—it seemed increasingly likely that police would have to attempt to take the assailant by force.

Whenever the showdown does end, it’s likely French authorities will be praised for the speed with which they identified and cornered Merah. It seems equally evident they’ll also face sharp questions about how a known extremist could have carried out such an appalling spree of violence undetected—or indeed without being apprehended first. The answers may provide even more chills for a French public still shaken by the events in Toulouse.

(MORE: France’s Jewish School Massacre: A Horrified Country Unites After Shooting Spree)

“We’ve had pretty good success identifying and keeping an eye on people who evolve towards extremism and seek out guidance in going further in jihad,” one French counterterrorism official recently told TIME. “We’ve been rather fortunate in coming across lone wolves and self-indoctrinated radicals we’d have never suspected otherwise. But the more time that passes without one ever sneaking through only increases the odds of your streak coming to an end before too long. Sooner or later, we’re going to miss one, and they’re going to take advantage of that. That’s why you have to remain very humble, remain very focused, and hope when you are beat by an extremist, you’ll at least have the ability to respond and stop him as quickly as possible.”

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