Mohammed Merah, the 23-year-old former mechanic suspected of killing seven people in southwestern France, seemed unremarkable to friends and neighbours.
He liked to play football, ride motorbikes and go to night clubs – one friend saw him out as recently as last week – and a neighbour who said Merah once helped him carry a heavy couch described the man as “extremely normal” and not “the one who made the most noise”.
He was an observant Muslim who prayed five times a day, but those who knew him said he never spoke about religion, and one friend did not even know Merah prayed.
Yet before Merah died in a hail of bullets on Thursday morning after a 31-hour siege of his apartment by special police, he reportedly claimed affiliation to al-Qaeda and explained his killings as revenge for Palestinian children, France’s participation in the war in Afghanistan, and the country’s banning of the Islamic face veil known as niqab.
He was “someone who is very cold, very determined, very in control of himself, very cruel,” Claude Gueant, the French interior minister, said.
Visits to Pakistan and Afghanistan
Merah was born in Toulouse on October 10, 1988, to a French father and Algerian mother, and he was not a stranger to breaking the law. Gueant told reporters that Merah had been arrested for at least 18 minor offences, some involving violence, “but there was no evidence that he was planning such criminal actions”.
He had been noted by France’s domestic intelligence service years ago, after visiting Afghanistan and Pakistan. Though Gueant said he did not think Merah had visited any hardline Islamic training camps, the daily Le Monde newspaper claimed that Merah had trained with Pakistani Taliban fighters before being sent into Afghanistan to fight NATO forces.
French troops are part of the NATO operation, and Merah’s first victims were serving paratroopers, who he killed in Toulouse on March 11 and Montauban on March 15.
Merah tried to join the French army four years ago, in the northern city Lille, but his criminal record led recruiters to reject his application. Two years later, he applied to join the Foreign Legion in Toulouse, spent the night at the recruitment centre and left the next day.
Christian Etelin, a lawyer who had represented Merah since his first appearances in juvenile court, told the AFP news agency that he had in recent years advised Merah to “not do anything wrong”, since his visits to Pakistan and Afghanistan had likely put him under state surveillance.
“He did not give the impression that he could become radical and want to start committing acts of such absolute harshness,” Etelin said. “I’ve always known [him as] someone flexible in their behaviour, civilised, and not so rigid that you’d imagine any kind of fanaticism”.
Gueant said Merah had sketched out his motives during negotiations with police.
“His radicalisation took place in a Salafist ideological group and seems to have been firmed up by two journeys he made to Afghanistan and Pakistan,” he said.
Gueant said the Salafist group to which Merah belonged had around 15 members and no official name and had never given any indication of turning to criminal activity. Police are still trying to determine whether Merah acted alone.
‘Polite and well-behaved’
On his return to Toulouse, Merah led a normal life. Cedric Lambert, 46, father of an upstairs neighbour, said Merah was friendly and had helped them about 10 months ago to carry a heavy sofa upstairs.
A group of four 24-year-old men who said they were friends of Merah and tried unsuccessfully to convince police to let them talk to him told a Reuters reporter that he had never talked about religion. They said they had no idea he had been to Afghanistan.
One friend who gave his name as Kamal, a financial adviser at La Banque Postale, said he had known Merah at school and they had done football training together after meeting again two years ago.
“He is someone who is very discreet. He is not someone who would brag and go around and say ‘Oh look at my new girlfriend, look how great I am.’ He is very polite and always well-behaved,” Kamal said. “He never spoke about Islam but he did pray. But we all pray five times a day. There’s nothing strange about that.”
Another friend, who gave the pseudonym Danny Dem, said he had seen Merah in a city centre nightclub just last week.
Merah did not drink “but I don’t think he is any more religious than I am. I think he has just lost the plot,” Danny
Merah’s mother, elder brother and two sisters were detained by police on Tuesday, and negotiators sought their help in trying to persuade him to turn himself in to the authorities, but Merah’s mother said she did not believe she could convince him.
A third contemporary, who declined to give his name, said he went to primary school with Merah and they had remained friends.
“He likes football and motor-bikes like any other guy his age,” said the man, dressed in a blue French national soccer
shirt. “I didn’t even know he prayed.”