On Aug. 9, the French government released previously classified documents showing that self-professed al Qaeda shooter Mohamed Merah had been identified by French intelligence as a potential threat as early as December 2009, and that by November 2010 he was being described as a “determined” Islamist, according to a report in The Connexion, an English-language French paper.
The Connexion report, based on an article in Le Parisien, said the newly released intelligence files show that in January 2011 authorities noted that Merah had become “radicalized” and had traveled to Afghanistan; later in the year they noted his planned trip to Pakistan but did not prevent his traveling there, and by December 2011 observed that he presented “a serious threat of ‘armed action.'” In March of this year he cold-bloodedly shot and killed seven people, including three children, and seriously wounded two other victims.
But last month, the airing of audio clips from a four-hour-long tape recording of failed negotiations between French police and Merah was deemed to be upsetting and spurred a police investigation into the broadcast. The French paper Liberation commented in an editorial that political considerations had played into the authorities’ handling of the Merah affair.
Interior Minister Manuel Valls deplored the decision of French station TV1 to broadcast the material, saying it showed disrespect for the victims and interfered with ongoing legal proceedings in the matter, according to the BBC. Defending the broadcast, one of the TV show’s producers said: “We acted responsibly….We learn how Merah trained with al-Qaeda, his determination. We learn a lot of things, it has been very much put in context.”
When earlier this year Toulouse native Merah killed several people over a period of a few days and then died in a shootout with police after a 30-hour siege, media reports tended to portray him as either mentally ill, the victim of a disadvantaged childhood, or a self-aggrandizing wannabe jihadi whose claims to affiliation with al Qaeda should be dismissed. According to CNN, Bernard Squarcini, the chief of France’s domestic security service, said: “You have to go back to his broken childhood and psychiatric troubles. To carry out what he did smacks more of a medical problem and fantasy than a simple jihadist trajectory.”
Nonetheless, reports emerged in various media outlets indicating that Merah’s claims to having trained with al Qaeda were credible. And other reports suggested that Merah was far from the “lone wolf” portrayed by French officials. His older brother is suspected as an accomplice, and his stepfather, among others, has jihadist connections, CNN reported. And Merah’s own father, an Algerian, has sued French officials, charging them with the murder of his son.
Merah made some startling revelations during the siege negotiations with police, most notably his claims to be working for al Qaeda and having received terrorist training in Pakistan. Although the four-hour audiotape is no longer available on the website of TV1, portions can be found online, including the following excerpts, from a YouTube posting [translation provided by The Long War Journal]:
Merah: I work with al Qaeda, I have bosses, you see, I am not really alone. …. I am certainly all alone in France, you see, I operate all alone. But you see I had been sent by al Qaeda. I had been trained by the Pakistani Taliban. There is a whole organization behind all that, you see.
[police negotiator asks what training he received in Pakistan]
Merah: They asked me to make bombs, but I didn’t want to. I told them that here [in France] the materials needed to make bombs are under a lot of surveillance in France, so I would be risking arrest before even having them. After that, I told them, “Train me to use guns.”
[negotiator asks if any other jihadists in Pakistan had been recruited for terror attacks in France, and if there are any others from his area of France there in Pakistan]
Merah: There are French, Chinese, Tajiks, Afghans, Pakistanis, Americans, Germans, Spaniards. There are all kinds, I came across all sorts of people.
[negotiator asks if Merah remembers how long his training period was in Pakistan, how much time did in spend in Pakistan]
Merah: Two months to the day. I spent about a dozen days to find the brothers. When I joined them, because when I arrived over there, I didn’t have the right to go out, I stayed in one room, I had to wait. You see, they don’t know who I am, where I’m from, it’s not important who … who enters in the group of al Qaeda. …. By the grace of Allah, I gained their trust, I bought my weapon, I equipped myself, and I had all kinds of brothers who came, brothers whose job it was to send other brothers into other countries…. They asked me about attacks in America, Canada, etc., and I said, as I am French I will do the French ones, it’s easier for me and simpler to attack in France.
[negotiator asks if al Qaeda asked him to kill people, to target people in France, any people in particular or known institutions]
Merah: Yeah, it was well-known people, it was important people. To kill certain diplomats, certain people, all that ….
Negotiator: For example?
Merah: Like the Indian ambassador or ambassadress, I don’t know if it was a woman from there. …. Because after a while they spoke to me about a woman. Certain ambassadors, certain journalists I think. Not journalists, heads of newspapers of certain countries, there, people like that.
[Later on in the negotiations, the topic of his travel to Afghanistan and Pakistan came up again.]
Merah: You think that I’m gonna be a tourist in Pakistan and Afghanistan? Who have you seen be a tourist there? [sarcastically]
Negotiator: You, you told me.
Merah: ‘Al harbe Khoudaa,’ you know what that means?
Negotiator: Go on, continue.
Merah: It means, ‘The war is a game.’ I went to many countries before finding the brothers. When I found them, that’s when I was in Pakistan. I didn’t find them before in all the countries I had visited. Not Afghanistan, I wasn’t finding them then. I found them in Pakistan.
[Merah also alluded to a time when he had been called into the police offices in an investigation into a minor criminal matter; he had had a series of arrests in the past as a petty criminal]:
Merah: When you summoned me, when I was in your offices, I was in contact with them [the brothers]. I had been finding them and everything. That, I believe, is one of the biggest errors of your career!
Negotiator: You go to nightclubs?
Merah: Yes I go to nightclubs. …. I was dressing in a certain way that showed that I don’t have the profile of someone who is a member of al Qaeda. I had a real fashion style, I had [a certain type of hairstyle], long hair, Spanish line on the side, tribal. I did all that, I was blond. Thank Allah, it was part of the ruse, you see.
[He also mentioned other aspects of his life in France.]
Merah: I’m a very good driver, and was paid to be a getaway driver. If I came across the police, my job was to lose the police very quickly.
Throughout the siege, Merah seems to have remained rational and coherent. He ultimately refused to surrender, and warned police that he had rested during the standoff in order to fight at the finish. He was killed as he leapt from his balcony, shooting at police as he fell.
Merah’s alleged links to al Qaeda cannot be easily dismissed. His demeanor in the tapes was not that of a madman but of someone who is canny and determined. He spoke confidently, taunting his captors with their failure to catch on to him sooner. And his statements regarding his jihadist training in Pakistan align with the all-too-familiar pattern that has been established by European recruits to al Qaeda.
On March 22, just hours after Merah was killed by police, an al Qaeda and Haqqani Network-linked Pakistani terror group called Jund al Khilafah released a statement on jihadist forums taking credit for Merah’s actions. Then on April 1, the group issued another statement claiming that Merah was a member of the group and extolling his acts. The statement provided considerable detail about his personality and his training, including his time in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region and his preference for guns over bombs. These details track closely with Merah’s own statements during the siege negotiations, which were not published in full until months later.