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03.26.12

Mohamed Merah’s Brother: France’s New Public Enemy

After the Toulouse gunman who killed seven was shot dead in a raid, his brother was charged with helping him plan attacks. Tracy McNicoll on whether he’s a conspirator or a scapegoat.

Brother in arms or brother at odds? Four days after the so-called Scooter Killer was shot dead by police after a 32-hour standoff, and a week after three small children and a rabbi were massacred at a Jewish school in Toulouse, the spotlight in a case that has rocked France to its core turns to Mohamed Merah’s older brother. Abdelkader, 29, was charged Sunday with complicity in the seven murders committed during the killing spree, including of three French paratroopers shot dead in Toulouse and neighboring Montauban on March 11 and 15, conspiracy to prepare acts of terrorism, and having helped his brother steal the infamous Yamaha T-Max 530 scooter used in all three attacks. Abdelkader was jailed Sunday in a Paris-area prison, where he will remain as the investigation continues. He faces a life sentence if convicted. Through his lawyer, Abdelkader has denied prior knowledge of his brother’s killings and says he fears becoming a scapegoat to the public’s anger now that his dead brother is beyond the reach of the law.

Abdelkader and his wife, Yamina, were taken into custody at his pink stucco home in Auterive, a pastoral village 35 kilometers south of Toulouse, shortly after police had surrounded his brother’s apartment in the city last Wednesday morning. Yamina, 30, who married Abdelkader, a discreet, deeply religious house painter with Salafist leanings who wears a goatee, in a religious ceremony not recognized civilly in 2006 and who wears the hijab, or Muslim veil, was released without charge early Sunday morning after 94 hours in custody, two hours short of the French legal limit in a terror case. Merah’s mother, Zoulikha Aziri, 55, also taken into custody Wednesday when she declined to try to talk Mohamed out of his lair at the start of the standoff, was released without charge Friday. It was Aziri’s IP address that ultimately led police to her sons. The killing spree’s first victim, Staff Sgt. Imad Ibn Ziaten, was gunned down March 11 in Toulouse after Merah responded to an online ad to buy the paratrooper’s motorcycle. Aziri’s lawyer said his client, a cleaning lady on medical disability leave, was devastated “by a feeling of guilt and remorse” of not being able to foresee or stop her son’s killings, sentiments police negotiators signaled were entirely absent from her son’s discourse during the standoff.

Abdelkader was on French antiterror police radars long before his younger, now notorious brother belatedly caught their attention. In 2007 Abdelkader was investigated, but never charged, in the case of a jihadist network mounted to convey fighters to Iraq. Eight men were convicted in that case, including Sabri Essid, a son of Aziri’s boyfriend at the time who was close to Abdelkader. Essid was arrested in December 2006 in Syria and handed a five-year sentence in 2009 for conspiracy to prepare acts of terrorism. Abdelkader also occasionally met with Olivier Corel, known as “the Sheikh” or “the White Emir,” a naturalized French citizen from Syria known to intelligence authorities for his Salafist leanings who often received young locals looking for spiritual guidance at his home in the village of Artigat. Corel was also reportedly briefly investigated, but never charged, in the jihadist-networks case.

French media were flush with rumors Monday, citing anonymous leaks that investigators are concerned about a three-hour dinner the Merah brothers shared the night before Mohamed’s 8 a.m. attack on Ozar Hatorah school on March 19. The popular daily Le Parisien has said investigators have traced Abdelkader’s cellphone to the vicinity of the school massacre; Libération claims Abdelkader drove his brother to the scene of the scooter theft, rue de la Balance, in Toulouse, on March 6; and Le Monde cites sources close to the investigation allegedly revealing direct assistance in the preparation of the killings, that Abdelkader accompanied his brother to a Yamaha dealer to ask about removing the manufacturer’s tracking chip. And while many cite police sources claiming Abdelkader has admitted to helping steal the scooter, Abdelkader’s lawyer Sunday said he had admitted to nothing. She condemns the leaks in the case, in particular the one most harmful to the suspected brother in the eyes of the public and that has spread worldwide. “I want to signal that there were leaks in the press that were false, notably that [Abdelkader] is supposed to have said he was proud of his brother’s acts,” Anne-Sophie Laguens told reporters. “He insists that that is false, that he never said he was proud of his brother’s acts, and that he firmly condemns them.” She added that he feels that “since it is not possible to put his brother, who is no longer with us, on trial, that perhaps we are falling back a bit on the only person that we do have.”

Abdelkader was on French antiterror police radars long before his younger, now notorious brother belatedly caught their attention.

Indeed, in walkie-talkie conversations with police negotiators before the raid that killed him, authorities say, Mohamed stressed that he didn’t trust his brother and had told neither his brother nor his mother about his killing-spree plans. Authorities believe Mohamed stayed with his brother in 2010 in Cairo, where Abdelkader lived briefly with his wife and sister studying at a Koranic school, after Mohamed’s trip through Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Israel and before he traveled to Afghanistan through Tajikistan, under Western intelligence services’ radar, where the Scooter Killer told authorities he had received terrorist training. Those supposed intelligence failures remain a hot source of political debate in France, now less than four weeks away from first-round voting in its presidential election April 22.