The Face of a Monster
An al Qaeda-linked gunman accused of assassinating Jewish children and French paratroopers was killed Thursday in a bloody end to a 32-hour siege at an apartment in Toulouse.
Mohammed Merah staged a dramatic last stand, bursting out of the bathroom and firing wildly at police, before jumping out of a window while still shooting.
He was found dead on the ground, French interior minister Claude Gueant told reporters at the scene.
“When a means of investigation [such as a mirror or camera] was introduced into the bathroom, the killer came out from the bathroom shooting very violently. The bursts of gunfire were frequent and hard,” Gueant said. “A RAID [special police] officer who is used to this kind of thing told me that he had never seen such a violent assault.”
Gueant added, “RAID officers of course tried to protect themselves, to return fire, and then in the end, Mohammed Merah jumped out of the window with a gun in his hand, continuing to fire. He was found dead on the ground.”
The police unit that carried out the raid had never seen anything like this level of violence before, Gueant, who was crouching behind an armored car during the assault, said, confirming that two police officers were injured.
Merah, a Frenchman of Algerian descent, earlier fought off several police assaults on the hideout in the Croix-Daurade district of Toulouse as anti-terror officers tried to end the standoff.
The decision to make a final assault was made after negotiations for Merah’s surrender ended unsuccessfully late Wednesday, according to Gueant.
Police entered the apartment through the front door and the windows but were initially unable to locate Merah. When the team went to search the bathroom, the gunman opened fire.
Heavy gunfire reverberated in the area for several minutes, and loud explosions were heard.
President Nicolas Sarkozy congratulated police involved in the operation, AFP reported.
“The president congratulates all of the security forces after the conclusion of these tragic events,” he said in a statement. “Our thoughts at this time are particularly for those killed and wounded by the suspected killer.”
The 23-year-old Merah had said he acted alone in three shooting incidents over the last 11 days that took the lives of three paratroopers, and three children and a rabbi outside a Jewish school.
Authorities reportedly tracked him down via his brother’s computer, which was used to respond to an ad posted by his first victim, who was trying to sell a scooter.
Gueant earlier said the gunman wanted “to die with weapons in his hands” but that French authorities wanted to take him alive.
Merah appears to have been on the radar of French officials before the first killing now attributed to him. His name appeared on a government watchlist of hundreds of suspected French Islamic radicals who visited Afghanistan and Pakistan, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Merah claims to have links with al Qaeda, according to police and prosecutors. His goal was to avenge Palestinian children and protest the French Army’s presence in Afghanistan, he reportedly told police.
Authorities said Merah, a French citizen of Algerian descent, espoused a radical form of Islam and had been to Afghanistan and the Pakistani militant stronghold of Waziristan, where he claimed to have received training from al Qaeda. It was unclear if he really got terrorist training or had genuine links to al Qaeda.
They said he told negotiators he killed a rabbi and three young children at a Jewish school on Monday and three French paratroopers last week to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children and to protest the French army’s involvement in Afghanistan, as well as a government ban last year on face-covering Islamic veils.
During one of two trips to Afghanistan, Mohammed Merah was detained at a roadblock by Afghan cops and turned over to US soldiers, according to Francois Molins, a French prosecutor. Soon afterward, the United States washed its hands of him and “put him on the first plane headed to France,’’ Molins said.
Once in France, he was allowed to live freely in Toulouse, despite his known radical views.
It was not immediately clear why the Americans and French failed to detain him. Molins said Merah was suffering from hepatitis.
US officials are aiding the probe of why he was let go by both countries.
Merah was well known to intelligence agencies long before he opened fire on a Jewish school in Toulouse on Monday, sources said.
Throughout the siege, Merah, 23, kept boasting to the cops, while brandishing an AK-47. He bragged about committing the murders at the school and also confessed to the fatal shootings of three French soldiers in two earlier attacks, officials said.
“He said he had planned to attack a solider on Monday but, unable to find a target, he took aim at the Jewish school,” said Claude Guéant, the interior minister. He added that Merah had planned more attacks.
“He expressed no regret apart from not having had enough time to kill more victims and even boasted of having brought France to its knees,” Molins said.
The stunning revelation that the mad jihadist was once in the hands of the US Army came as the Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, 30, his two boys Arieh, 5, and Gabriel, 4; and a cousin Myriam Monsenego, 8, were laid to rest in Jerusalem in a funeral that drew 1,000 mourners, including the French foreign minister.
But French security officials long had him on their radar, according to an Interior Ministry official who said Merah’s “fundamentalist” Islamic views were widely known.
He tried to enlist in the French military twice but was rebuffed.
He claims to be a mujahedeen, or freedom fighter, with the al Qaeda-inspired group Forsane Alizza, or Knights of Glory.
The French group, known more for threats than actual violence, was banned in January for recruiting radicals to wage jihad in Afghanistan. The group also raged against the French ban on the Muslim hijab for women.
Merah’s brother Abdelkader had been implicated in a 2007 conspiracy to send militants to Iraq to fight American troops.
The brother along with their mother have now been detained, authorities said.
Investigators zeroed in on Merah after one of his brothers, it’s not clear which, tried to have the GPS tracker removed from a stolen motorcycle that was used in the attacks.
That tip helped prompt the morning raid that led to the siege. Merah had also used a brother’s computer to make arrangements to meet his first victim, a French paratrooper, under the pretense of selling a motorcycle. He then executed the soldier.
He is believed to have video-recorded the Jewish-school attack to distribute on radical Web sites.
Meanwhile, friends and family members of the Sandlers and Monsenegos, all dual-French-Israeli citizens, tried to make sense of the violence.
“My daughter is friends with Mrs. Sandler, [Rabbi] Sandler’s wife. The world is constantly saying attacks against Jews are justified because of Israeli policies,’’ said Yosef Abtan, 64, after the Jerusalem funeral. “Where is the world when the Syrian government murderers civilians? Where is the world when rockets from Gaza kill Israeli children? Where is the world when innocent Jewish children are gunned down in France? “People who kill Jews are doing it because they hate Jews. Period.”
In the US, relatives of the Sandler family, whose roots are in Morocco, also mourned.
“In Morocco, we had no problems with Muslims. They were our brothers. It is the only country were Muslims and Jews live peacefully,” said Henriette Sasson, the great-aunt of the Sandler children. “This killer, he hates himself, he hates the world, so he kills people.”
She said that Jonathan, a special-education teacher, had just moved back to France to work at the school after living for several years in Israel.
“He was so dedicated. He decided to come and teach kids with special needs for two years. . . . And in six months he is dead. They are dead.’’
In France, the drama continued to captivate the nation.
During standoff negotiations — and in a bizarre phone call to a TV station — the suspect said his attacks were revenge for French military action in Afghanistan and for the deaths of Palestinian children in the Middle East.
His attacks, which started March 11, so shocked the country that all presidential campaigning had been halted.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed, “Terrorism will not be able to fracture our national community.”
Some people who know Merah expressed shock, saying he was into girls, bikes, clubs and soccer — not terrorism.
“Three weeks ago he was in a nightclub,” said acquaintance Mehdi Nedder, 31. “And this morning I hear we’re talking about al Qaeda.”
Merah had a long police record, with 15 arrests during his youth for petty crimes, French officials said. He spent two years in prison between late 2007 and late 2009 after a court sentenced him for stealing an elderly woman’s handbag, according to Christian Etelin, the lawyer who defended him at the time.