The low-rise apartment block where the main suspect in France’s drive-by school murders and paratrooper shootings was surrounded by security forces filled countless news screens for hours on end. In the Izards neighbourhood of Toulouse, many residents were concerned there might be an anti-Muslim stigma attached to them.
Few seem to have known much about the suspect. Some described him as “calm and respectful”.
The authorities have named him as Mohamed Merah, age 23, born in France, of Algerian origins.
With a background in petty crime, employed in car repairs, he is said to own a scooter like the one used in the crimes in question, and to illegally possess a .45 calibre Colt pistol and an Uzi submachine gun, weapons used by armies and police in some 50 countries.
French firearms professional Yves Gollety speculated on the possible source: “The Uzi would tend to prove that this must be a former soldier, yet a person can very well have obtained this weapon from someone in the military, or on a trip to Africa or from an arms dealer. There are many ways to get hold of these weapons.”
Mohamed Merah was known to the French intelligence agency, which kept a file on him for several years, saying he travelled twice to Afghanistan and Pakistan, though it is not sure he went there for combat training.
The French Interior Minister told reporters that Merah claimed Al Qaeda affiliation, and was involved with extremist group ‘Forsane Alizza’ (which means ‘Knights of Pride’), which the French government ordered to disband earlier this year, for inciting racial hatred.
Its website, now blocked, evoked the plight of Palestinian children, in whose name Merah is said to have shot the Jewish children and rabbi in Toulouse.
In this Forsane Alizza online recruitment video, it says it is expanding and is looking for ‘soldiers’. French intelligence says it has identified 14 French nationals who trained in jihadist camps in Pakistan.
It has been more than 15 years since the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) conducted a series of bombings in France, and no subsequent similar attacks have taken place on the territory, but anti-terrorist and intelligence services remain on guard against units like this.
European-born volunteer trainees in camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan are potential material for extremist cells when they come back.
Merah is said to have killed the three paratroopers for their regiment’s participation in missions in Afghanistan.