French Terrorist Mohamed Merah’s Last Words Taped by Cops Now Leaked on TV
The so-called Scooter Killer is making new headlines in France on Monday. The case of the lone motorcycle-riding gunman who shot dead three soldiers, three Jewish schoolchildren, and a rabbi in three daylight incidents held the country rapt in March. Then, the manhunt for 23-year-old Mohamed Merah and the 32-hour siege of his Toulouse apartment seemed to grind the country to a halt, suspending its presidential election campaign. Merah, who claimed links to al Qaeda, was killed by police after a five-minute firefight on the morning of March 22. But to the deep chagrin of the victims' families, Merah's legacy lives on. On Sunday night a French television network aired audio excerpts of Merah under siege. French investigators specialized in police misconduct have opened a preliminary enquiry into the leaked tapes.
"I know there's a risk you will kill me. It's a risk I am taking. So there, know that, in front of you, you have a man who is not afraid of death. For me, death, I love it like you love life," says Mohamed Merah, calmly, with a slight Toulouse accent, in the excerpts of tapes aired by the TF1 network. The audio spurred immediate anger from victims' families who say through lawyers that they were assured the tape would remain sealed in evidence and that they were not warned before Sunday's broadcast.
Interior Minister Manuel Valls, a Socialist whose government won office after the Merah affair, was dismayed that "no precaution was taken to respect the families of the victims." Valls' predecessor, Claude Guéant, a close associate of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, said, "This airing reawakens the considerable grief that was felt by our whole country, a veritable trauma." The victims' families have asked that further airings of the audio be blocked.
The French daily Le Monde on Monday afternoon claimed to have obtained transcripts of Merah's conversations, recorded during the siege overnight on March 21–22, with a police negotiator and an intelligence officer. Merah had previously met the intelligence officer in November 2011, when he was called in for questioning about suspicious travels in Pakistan and Afghanistan, controversially convincing his interviewer that he was no more than a tourist in Central Asia. Holed up in his besieged apartment, rattling off all of his erstwhile future targets over a police-issued walkie-talkie—police officers, a synagogue—Merah had news for the officer.
"Want me to tell you something, H.?" he asked, in Le Monde's published excerpts.
"I hope you didn't target me?" the officer replies.
"Yes, believe me that I targeted you," Merah replies. "My goal was to call you, to tell you I had the name [of the killer] so that you would come to me and then you'd have gotten one right in the head." In Le Monde's transcripts, Merah goes on to say he'd envisioned being shot down as he sprayed gunfire into a police station.
Much of the new material in the transcripts echoes information already circulating shortly after Merah's death. In the newly published material, Merah is shown claiming he acted alone, that his contacts in Waziristan had proposed that he carry out attacks in the United States and Canada, but that he declined those. Merah is also shown denying the suggestion that his brother was an accomplice in his killing spree. Abdelkader Merah, 29, was taken into police custody in the early hours of the siege and remains jailed. "You know very well that me and him, it's like Tom and Jerry. We're like cat and dog," Merah tells his interviewer. "All the time, we're falling out. When we make up, it doesn't last long ... My objective was to attack alone ... in order to be entirely autonomous."
In Le Monde's excerpts, Merah is evidently proud of his ruse. His wild haircuts, nightclubbing, jeans, New Balance sneakers—all give him an air of someone less than committed to the jihadist cause. "I got myself arrested by the Jews in Israel, by Iraqi soldiers in Mosul, by Algerian soldiers in the mountains of Boumerdès or mountains next to the Kabylie region where all our brothers operate. I got myself arrested in Afghanistan," he says in these transcripts. "You completely messed up because I was able to do three attacks, kill more than seven people, and injure several."
"There were two endings open to me: either prison with my head held high or death with a big smile," Merah tells the police negotiator, foreshadowing a violent end even as French authorities had made an explicit priority of arresting Merah alive. "Since I have the choice, I prefer to opt for the latter struggle," he is reported to have told his besiegers. TF1 has argued that the newsworthiness of the excerpts it aired on Sunday was, in part, that they illustrate that police were seeking to arrest Merah alive. That claim was contested by some in the wake of Merah's death. In June Mohamed Merah's father, who lives in Algeria and has criticized French police for their role in his son's death, filed a complaint in Paris for murder. Merah's father's lawyer has said she would file evidence in the case on July 12, reportedly including videos Merah is alleged to have filmed in his apartment during the siege, although authorities have claimed that there is no such video.
For parents of the Scooter Killer victims, Sunday night's airing of the audio transcripts reawaken fears that the video Merah filmed of the killings with a camera strapped to his chest will eventually be made public. Al Jazeera's Paris bureau received the gruesome video by mail shortly after Merah's death in March. Then, after some debate, the Qatar-based network announced via Twitter that it would not air the footage.
In the immediate aftermath of the Toulouse massacres, so close to France's presidential election, some wondered whether the affair might shift the campaign in favor of then-president Sarkozy, who had made his name talking tough on crime. Indeed, far-right leader Marine Le Pen looked to use the affair to link crime and immigration issues, although the French-born Merah was not an immigrant himself. Sarkozy made Merah a key talking point in a series of campaign speeches playing to security fears. In the end, the Toulouse killings never did invert head-to-head polling favoring François Hollande before the affair. He defeated Sarkozy on May 6.
Nevertheless, there are signs the Scooter Killer's impact is still being felt, in Toulouse and well beyond. Last month, an apparently mentally unstable man held four people hostage in a bank in Merah's Toulouse neighborhood, allegedly claiming ties with al Qaeda and asking to speak with the same police negotiator who had handled Merah. That seven-hour standoff made headlines around the world for its supposed al Qaeda and Merah connections. In the event only the hostage taker was injured, after police intervened.
Meanwhile, authorities have said that the Merah affair spurred an increase in reported anti-Semitic acts in France in the immediate aftermath of the killing spree. Last week an orthodox Jewish teenager was attacked on a Lyon-bound train out of Toulouse. Two 18-year-old suspects are being investigated for an attack on hate grounds, although the pair has denied the altercation was motivated by anti-Semitism. As it turns out, the 17-year-old victim is a student at Toulouse's Ozar Hatorah Jewish school, the site of the Scooter Killer's last massacre on March 19.