The Toulouse Terrorist: Was He or Was He Not a Lone Wolf?

Report in le Monde detailing declassified intelligence reports suggest Toulouse killer Mohammed Merah had far more contacts with presumed radical allies than previously known--but security officials contend it doesn't undermine evidence the jihadist was a lone wolf

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Was self-proclaimed al Qaeda member and Toulouse killer Mohammed Merah the lone wolf that French officials initially suggested? Or did he actually rely on active support of fellow radicals in both France and abroad in mounting his spree of slaying last March?

Those questions were raised anew Aug. 23 by a story in French daily le Monde indicating Merah had far more numerous contacts with suspected extremists than previously known—and took pains to keep nearly 2,000 telephone calls to those people secret.

Yet French authorities warn TIME that despite the sinister-sounding details of the Monde story, information in it doesn’t contradict what they’ve known for months. Nor, they add, do they reveal Merah had any significant assistance in conceiving and executing his three shooting attacks beyond training he received from al-Qaeda figures during a previously known visit to Pakistan.

The story in Thursday evening’s edition of le Monde details recently declassified intelligence documents the paper viewed. Le Monde says the intelligence reports show that Merah—whose killing spree of seven people ended with his own death during a dramatic police siege March 22—made 1,863 calls or sent text messages to numerous people in 20 nations. Those spanned the U.K., Egypt, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Morocco and Bhutan—where Merah called nine different numbers–between September 2010 and late February 2011. Le Monde’s report also quotes intelligence analyses detailing Merah’s international travels during the same period, notably to Middle Eastern nations and Afghanistan. All that, the article proposes, seriously undermines the view counter-terrorism authorities have given that Merah was a self-radicalized “lone wolf”.

The article says French intelligence services first kept an eye on Merah’s older brother Abdelkader—an outspoken Salafist figure in Toulouse—in 2008, as well as their sister Souad in 2010. At times, Mohammed Merah also appeared on their radar screen, leading French security services to start watching the young delinquent’s movements and contacts carefully.

Indeed, following Merah’s 2011 trip to Afghanistan—and arrest and expulsion by U.S. forces as a security threat—the budding jihadist was himself placed under close surveillance. It was during that time intelligence officials noted Merah’s use of his mother’s mobile phone and frequent replacement of pre-paid SIM cards—precautions his watchers interpreted as Merah’s attempts avert detection and eavesdropping of his multiple calls abroad. Meantime, authorities duly noted Merah’s increased encounters with members of Toulouse’s Salafist milieu.

Yet it was only after a trip Pakistan in September 2011 that Merah was summoned by intelligence services for confrontational interrogation. During that encounter, a seemingly cooperative Merah showed the questioning agent photos he’d taken in Pakistan on what he called a tourism visit. The relaxed and unflappable Merah at one point even laid down during that encounter, complaining of a liver ailment that had cut his Pakistan sojourn short, and laid him low since returning to Toulouse.

In reality, it was later learned, Merah had traveled to the Taliban stronghold of Waziristan to meet with who he later said were al-Qaeda leaders. During that time, Merah also received arms and combat training, and took advice on the terror spree he decided to commit once back in Toulouse. During the siege in which he later lost his life, Merah told that same interrogating intelligence agent who’d believed the tourism version of the Pakistan visit that though his al-Qaeda hosts counseled him to undertake an attack using explosives, Merah insisted on staging strikes that would allow him to kill his victims himself.

The contents and thesis of the Monde report and articles about it echo earlier suspicions that the failure to identify Merah as a security threat and stop him before he could put his deadly plot into action was the result of a French intelligence failure. The Monde story also suggests previous depictions of Merah as a self-radicalized lone wolf who duped suspecting spooks with a convincing act are now proven incorrect—or even intentionally misleading—by the details and chronology of the intelligence reports.

Yet French senior security officials tell TIME that the Monde article doesn’t contain anything they weren’t previously aware of. They similarly contend it doesn’t undermine prevailing evidence Merah’s evolution into extremism and terror action was still mostly a grim personal quest.

The details of the intelligence reports themselves show how carefully French agencies had watched Merah at home and abroad, officials say. That Merah was placed under surveillance a full year before his killing spree is also evidence authorities took him seriously as a potential threat—even if they were later duped by Merah re-assuming the profile and activities of a club-hopping, late night-partying youth and petty criminal. The major error in his case, they concede, was not viewing his Sept. 2011 trip to Pakistan as a likely clue Merah had a more sinister focus and commitment to extremist violence.

What of the nearly 2,000 calls abroad? While they acknowledge those appear significant in hindsight, officials say a large chunk of those were made to Egypt while Abdelkader was in that country receiving Koranic instruction, or else to Algeria, where Merah’s father and many relatives live. That still doesn’t close the possibility that Merah wasn’t also calling radicals overseas to receive encouragement in his own extremist progression—or perhaps even to discuss and finalize his own jihadist shooting campaign as it materialized.

But those same French officials stress that those kinds of contacts are quite different from the active assistance and material support that operatives in a terror plot would actually need. And despite France’s ban on hand guns and assault weapons, officials say the arms Merah used are relatively easy to acquire on the French black market if one has the money. For a delinquent experienced in robbery like Merah, raising the cash necessary for that would have been easy without outside help in funding. With the major difference of his jihadist intent—and the clues authorities should have used to foresee and prevent his violent intent—officials say the nature and tools of Merah’s killing spree is sadly similar to the kind of rising gun violence committed in other French cities for non-terror motives, and without co-conspirator help.