TOULOUSE, France (Reuters) - For Mohamed Merah, the Frenchman suspected of killing four Jews and three Muslim soldiers in south-western France, the road to radicalisation ran from a delinquent childhood in Toulouse to Kandahar in Afghanistan.
Merah, 24, who was holed up in a suburban Toulouse apartment on Wednesday, besieged by police commandos from the elite RAID unit, claimed affiliation with al Qaeda and said he wanted to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children, French Interior Minister Claude Gueant said.
The suspect, a French citizen of Algerian origin, had been under surveillance by France’s domestic intelligence service for at least two years after being identified in Afghanistan.
But back home he led a normal life of soccer and night clubbing, worked in a car body workshop, loved motorbikes and showed no sign of militancy, according to friends and neighbours who had no idea that he had been to the Asian battleground.
Merah had a string of 15 convictions by juvenile courts, mostly for theft including several involving violence, and had served 18 months in a French prison in 2007-09 which his lawyer, Christian Etelin, said may have radicalised him.
Shortly after his release, he applied to enlist in the French Foreign Legion but was rejected because of his criminal record, a military spokesman said.
As police psychologists tried to talk him into surrendering peacefully, Merah gave the same impression of calm determination and self-control as the gunman on a scooter recorded by security cameras at the Ozer Hatorah Jewish school in Toulouse on Monday.
Exactly when and how Merah slid from petty crime to Islamist radicalism remains unclear.
“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,” the interior minister said.
Gueant denied there had been any security lapse in failing to prevent his killing spree, saying: “There was no evidence that he was planning criminal actions.”
He said the suspect had told RAID negotiators that he had accepted a “mission” from al Qaeda but had refused to be a suicide bomber.
During the first of his Afghan trips in 2010, Merah was picked up by chance in a road check by local police in Kandahar and handed over to the U.S. army, which put him on the first flight back to France, according to Francois Molins, the public prosecutor in charge of the case.
A French security source said Merah had spent about a year in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region. The gunman said he had undergone military training with al Qaeda in the Pakistani province of Waziristan, Molins told reporters.
U.S. officials declined comment on any role in handling Merah in Afghanistan but said they believed he was probably not affiliated with what remains of the core al Qaeda organisation created by the late Osama bin Laden and led now by Ayman al Zawahiri. Instead, they believe he is probably a lone wolf, or almost-lone-wolf, with at most a handful of associates including perhaps his brother.
Molins said Merah’s elder brother, Abdelkader, 29, who is being questioned by investigators, was known to the security services for having helped smuggle Jihadist militants into Iraq in 2007. Police found explosives in a car owned by Abdelkader, the prosecutor said.
Molins said Mohamed Merah made his own way to Afghanistan without using networks of facilitators under surveillance by Western intelligence. His second Afghan stay in 2011 was cut short after three months when he contracted hepatitis A and returned to France in mid-October, the prosecutor said.
The daily Le Monde said Merah had trained with Pakistani Taliban fighters in a border tribal zone before being sent into south-western Afghanistan to fight against NATO forces supporting the Kabul government.
French troops are part of that NATO operation, which may explain why the first victims of the gunman’s killing spree were serving paratroopers killed in Toulouse on March 11 and Montauban on March 15.
French intelligence sources said about 30 French fighters trained by the Taliban were believed to have taken part in attacks on Western forces in Afghanistan.
Merah’s mother, 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.
“His mother said she did not wish to speak to him because she did not believe she could convince him and he would be deaf to her appeals,” Gueant said.
Merah’s profile is typical of hundreds of second- or third-generation French immigrants from North Africa who have travelled to Afghanistan or Pakistan over the last two decades attracted by militant Islamist groups, security officials say.
Many were radicalised by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which triggered a wave of attacks on Jewish targets in France in the early 2000s, including arson attacks on synagogues. The number of anti-Semitic attacks declined last year, figures published by the Jewish community showed.
French police say they have arrested 914 suspected Islamist militants since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and imprisoned 224, averting several planned attacks.
“LOST THE PLOT”
On his return to Toulouse, Merah led a normal life. First amateur video images of the suspect broadcast by France 2 television and apparently shot last year showed a smiling, clean-shaven tearaway rodeo-driving a grey BMW car.
He lost his job a few months ago and spent a lot of time alone at home watching videos on the Internet including some of gruesome Islamist beheadings of hostages, according to the prosecutor.
One woman acquaintance, interviewed on television with her face concealed, said Merah had turned “weird” in recent months, carrying a sword and showing her a video of al Qaeda executions.
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.
“He was extremely normal,” Lambert said.
A group of four 24-year-old men of similar ethnic background who said they were friends of Merah tried to go to his apartment block on Wednesday to persuade him to surrender but were turned back at a police roadblock.
All told a Reuters reporter he had never talked to them about religion and 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 soccer 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 of Moroccan origin, who gave the pseudonym Danny Dem, said Merah had tried to enlist in the French army but had been rejected. He 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 Dem said.
Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in New York, Ahmad Nadem in Kandahar and Gerard Bon in Paris; Writing by Paul Taylor, Editing by Peter Millership