Investigators seeking full details in the spree of violence by self-described al-Qaeda jihadi Mohammed Merah are detaining his older brother on suspicions he may have assisted the murderous campaign that left seven people dead in southwestern France. On March 25, authorities in Paris officially placed 29-year-old Abdelkader Merah under investigation for complicity in murder and terrorism-related offenses. That move, under France’s legal system, is tantamount to someone being identified as a suspect in a case.
A panel of investigating magistrates specializing in terrorism will now examine whether the elder Merah was involved in acts linked to his brother’s murder campaign. It will seek to establish whether Abdelkader was aware of his brother’s deadly plans beforehand and whether anyone else may have contributed to the slayings that ended in the March 22 police raid that left Mohammed dead. An attorney for the elder Merah says he “denies all charges against him.” Lawyer Anne-Sophie Laguens also told France Info radio that her client “strongly condemns” the actions of his late brother, and said she’d work to prevent him “becoming the scapegoat for the acts of his brother, which is a bit what’s happening now.”
Though Mohammed told police during the 31-hour siege leading up to his death that he had acted alone, unease remains that he could have had accomplices in setting up the trio of shootings that killed three soldiers and four Jewish victims. Investigators believe Abdelkader was at very least present when his brother stole a scooter that was used in all three attacks. Reports quoting French justice officials indicate they also suspect the younger man may have acted under the influence of his older brother. Abdelkader is known to have rigid, even extreme Islamist convictions that have drawn attention to him in the past. In 2007 he was subject in a police inquiry into a network of radicals around his hometown Toulouse aiding aspiring jihadists to travel and receive combat training abroad. Authorities acknowledge Abdelkader was not implicated in that illegal activity, nor has he been since.
Officials have also said they know Mohammed organized his own 2010 and ’11 trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan for training — journeys during which Mohammed claimed he met with al-Qaeda cadres who approved of his militant ambitions. Yet despite that troubling itinerary, French intelligence services found nothing to indicate Mohammed was a security risk during nearly two years of surveillance of his activities once he’d returned to Toulouse. That has sparked suggestions by some critics in France that authorities could have prevented this month’s trio of attacks that Merah justified as “revenge for Palestinian children” and revenge on the “French army because of its foreign interventions.” The controversy surrounding an alleged intelligence failure has helped push the Toulouse tragedy onto center stage of France’s presidential campaign — and stoked the kind of speculation aired by Abdelkader’s lawyer that he’s now being primed as “a scapegoat” for acts his dead brother can no longer be tried for.
Be that as it may, there are also lingering questions in the case that justify continued doubt and inquiry. Authorities wonder, for example, how Mohammed, considered radical but nonoperative, could have gone postal without some sort of direction or order from an authority figure. They also ask how he could have built up the staggering store of guns, ammunition and explosives he possessed without his brother’s knowledge. Just as his early promises to surrender on claims he didn’t want to die proved to be a time-biding ploy, other conflicting information Mohammed gave during his standoff had authorities wondering if his claim to have acted entirely alone wasn’t also false.
Further details on why Mohammed’s acts and declarations have authorities re-examining everything in his case were provided in a fascinating interview to Le Monde by Bernard Squarcini, head of France’s domestic intelligence service. In it, Squarcini offers examples of Mohammed’s duplicity and misdirection during both his surveillance period and last week’s siege. Squarcini speaks of a “double-faced Janus” who not only convincingly offered up false information, but almost amicably told an officer he’d had frequent contacts with that “I’d have wasted you” if a recently planned meeting had come off as planned. Also troubling was the discovery that Mohammed filmed all his attacks with a small camera attached to his torso — the video of which, he said, has been sent to “brothers” to put online. That, too, seems to fly in the face of Mohammed’s claims he was the only one active in and privy to his campaign of killing — a conflict that may mean open-ended detention for his brother until all questions in the case have been answered.