03.21.12

French Shooting Suspect Mohamed Merah Under Siege in Raid

Police in Toulouse held their ground in a standoff with the suspected shooter of three separate incidents that have rocked France, aiming to force him into surrending. Tracy McNicoll reports.

More than 24 hours after it began, the Toulouse standoff continues.

French police have surrounded the home of a man they say is the Scooter Killer, the motorcycle-riding gunman who killed three children and a teacher at a Jewish school in Toulouse on Monday and three paratroopers in two incidents last week. Mohamed Merah is a 23 year-old French national of Algerian origin who claims links to al Qaeda. Despite reports to the contrary on Wednesday afternoon local time, the suspect has remained holed up in his Toulouse apartment, less than three miles from the Ozar Hatorah school, where he is suspected of killing Jonathan Sandler, 30, his two young sons, Gabriel and Arieh, and the young daughter of the school principal early Monday morning. Before midnight and into the early hours of the morning, blasts were heard at wide intervals in the darkened neighborhood, deprived of streetlighting by police. Not a raid, authorities say, but a pressure tactic, as police look to wear out a man they want to capture alive.

As the standoff began, the school victims were laid to rest in a ceremony this morning in Jerusalem. The funeral for the dead French paratroopers, Imad Ibn Ziaten, 30, Abel Chennouf, 25, and Mohamed Legouad, 23, all of North African origin, were held Wednesday afternoon in Montauban, 30 miles north of Toulouse, the site of two of the paratroopers' murders, in front of an ATM near their barracks. Authorities say the attacker was planning to kill a soldier coming out of his home on Wednesday morning. They add that he had also identified two Toulouse-area police officers as future targets.

It all began Wednesday morning 3:20 a.m. local time in the quiet residential Côte Pavée neighborhood of Toulouse. When police tried to break down Merah's apartment door, they were met "strong resistance." Three officers were shot, one in the knee, another in the shoulder, a third was hit in the bulletproof vest and suffered only minor injuries. Merah is known to police for about 15 acts of delinquency, some with violence, but Interior Minister Claude Guéant says nothing led authorities to believe that Merah was preparing a crime before the killing spree began. He is thought to have been radicalized during separate stays in Afghanistan and Pakistan. At a press conference, the Paris public prosecutor said Merah told the police negotiator in telephone contact with him that he trained in Waziristan. Authorities say Merah fits "an atypical self-self-radicalizing Salafist profile” in that he made two trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan, by his own means, without using the usual networks known to intelligence services. On his first trip, to Afghanistan, local police stopped him during a roadside check and handed him over to U.S. forces, who put him on the first plane back to France, the Paris public prosecutor said. He spent two more months in the Afghanistan and Pakistan, from August to October of 2011, but had to return to France early when he contracted hepatitis A.

On an evening news program Wednesday, Guéant said Merah explained the road he has taken to a police negotiator. "He went back over his itinerary. He explained the way in which he received instructions from al Qaeda during his stay in Pakistan; he was trained there," Guéant recounted. "He said it had even been proposed to him that he provoke a suicide attack, which he refused. But he did accept a general mission to commit an attack in France." Guéant said Merah "did not demonstrate suicidal tendencies" and that throughout the day he gave the impression "that he wanted to live, since he took the precaution of assuring himself that if he got out, even though he had killed children, to use his expression, his life would be safe." Guéant also said that Merah had been called in by French intelligence in November 2011 to explain what he had been doing in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to which Merah explained, providing photos, that he had gone for tourism.

Merah’s mother was asked to try to speak to her son but declined, saying he never listens to her anyway.

A lawyer told French television he had represented Merah on numerous occasions stretching back to appearances in juvenile court, for more minor offenses like purse snatching and as recently as a court appearance on Feb. 24, for driving a scooter without a license in 2009. Local media in France are reporting that Merah attempted to join the French Foreign Legion and the Army in 2010, but was turned away for his criminal record and psychological instability.

JJust after 1 a.m. Wednesday, two hours before a raid already set in motion, the suspect contacted France 24, a public news outlet that broadcasts around the world in French, English, and Arabic, to claim responsibility for the killing spree. France 24 senior editor Ebba Kalondo, who took the 11-minute call, says the man was calm, polite, and extremely articulate in French, with a slight accent. Providing details of his alleged attacks, Kalondo told France 24 that the caller cited the French law banning the burqa and France's role in the war in Afghanistan as motives. To explain the attack on the Jewish school, which he repeatedly referred to as a synagogue, he said, "The Jews kill our brothers and sisters in Palestine." Kalondo, speaking on France 24, said the man claims to have filmed all seven killings and aspires to post them on the Internet. The Paris public prosecutor says Merah has repeated those motives to a police negotiator and confirmed that he had made the France 24 call. Kalondo says the man she spoke with told her, "I will go to prison with my head held high or die with a smile. Nothing else."

Through the window of his Toulouse apartment, Merah traded a Colt .45, the model of firearm used in all three episodes of the killing spree, in return for a cellphone or walkie-talkie in order to communicate with police. He is believed to have a number of other weapons inside the apartment, including a 9mm mini-Uzi, a model used in the school attack on Monday, and a Kalashnikov. Authorities say Merah was very chatty with negotiators—claiming to be a mujahideen, to subscribe to the ideals of al Qaeda, to have killed the Jewish children out of vengeance for the suffering of Palestinian children—although talks have paused occasionally since the standoff began. On Merah's suggestion, police searched a rented Renault Megane utility vehicle parked nearby and found a cache of weapons. He also pointed police to a scooter that resembles the one used in the attacks, but they are still searching for a Renault Clio that may contain more weapons.

Interior Minister Claude Guéant explained that Merah was located through his mother's IP address, which was identified on Monday afternoon, hours after the Jewish attack, as linked to the murder of the first paratrooper killed on March 11 in Toulouse. In that attack, the Scooter Killer's first, the paratrooper, Ibn Ziaten, had sought to sell his Suzuki Bandit motorcycle. The Internet ad mentioned his profession, soldier, and his first name, Imad. The off-duty paratrooper agreed to a meeting with a potential buyer on a Sunday at 4 p.m., when he was shot in the head at extremely close range, as the six victims to follow would be. The public prosecutor, meanwhile, says Merah's mother's IP address began to stand out two days earlier, given the profile of her sons, but that checks still had to be made. Eight phone lines, including Merah's mother's, were tapped on Monday night; the Merah brothers were located on Tuesday. Among hundreds of witnesses questioned, authorities also heard from a Yamaha dealer who says one of the Merah brothers—he didn't know which—asked "for a friend" how to disable the scooter's GPS tracker.

Merah's mother was taken into custody by police early Wednesday morning and asked to try to speak to her son but declined, saying he never listens to her anyway. Merah's older brother, Abdelkader, 29, allegedly known to subscribe to fundamentalist ideas, and Abdelkader's girlfriend have also been taken into custody. Guéant said it was imperative that Merah be taken alive—one reason, some speculate, that the standoff has lasted so long. Merah initially pledged to give himself up early Wednesday afternoon, then late Wednesday evening. Around 6 p.m. local time, police reportedly cut the electricity to the apartment, depriving the suspect of round-the-clock French TV coverage of his standoff. Shortly before midnight, after three blasts rang out, sending flashes against neighborhood buildings, a police pressure tactic, a report circulated that the suspect had changed his mind altogether about giving himself up. Authorities said earlier that Merah told a police negotiator that he regrets not having had more time to attack more people.

After meeting with Nicolas Sarkozy at the Elysée Palace on Wednesday morning, Jewish and Muslim community leaders stood arm in arm in the palace courtyard pleading together for the public not to confuse a fundamentalist killer with the rest of the Muslim community.

Sarkozy says he brought the leaders together to "show that terrorism will not fracture our national community. We must come together and not cede to confusion or vengeance. In the face of such an event, France can be great only in national unity. We owe it to the victims and to our country."

In an apparent response to the claim that the Scooter Killer acted out of vengeance for Palestinians, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad released a statement saying, "It is time for these criminals to stop marketing their terrorist acts in the name of Palestine and to stop pretending to stand up for the rights of Palestinian children who only ask for a decent life."

Sarkozy led the funeral ceremony for dead paratroopers Wednesday afternoon in Montauban, the site of two of the murders and the paratrooper regiment's base. In a solemn speech, the president said the killer "wanted to bring the Republic to its knees," but he had failed. Five other presidential candidates also attended, including Socialist François Hollande and far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen. Sarkozy shook hands with all of his electoral rivals' hands at the end of the ceremony.

Le Pen had gone on the offensive early Wednesday morning on French television, once the motivations of the Scooter Killer became clear. "I believe the fundamentalist risk in our country has been underestimated," she said. Le Pen also promised to hold a referendum to reinstate the death penalty or full-life sentences, saying it was unimaginable that a man as dangerous as this could be out of prison in 25 years. Her party, which appears to feel it has the most to gain from Wednesday's turn of events, issued a very brash press release Wednesday morning entitled "To the Bastards," directed at some other political leaders and the head of the anti-racism organization SOS Racisme. "You believed you could miserably exploit the tragedy of Toulouse against the National Front and the candidate Marine Le Pen," it read. "Your efforts to try to drag 20 percent of French people through the mud has failed. You tried to add your poor political prosecution to the horror of the tragedy. You should apologize to the National Front, to its voters, and to Marine Le Pen. You should in any case shut up for a long time."