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Merah: The ‘Untold Story’ of a French Jihadist Icon

Brussels, May 24, 2014 — Mehdi Nemmouche, a 29-year-old native of Roubaix, in northern France, and veteran of the Syrian jihad, shoots three people dead at the city’s Jewish Museum, fatally wounding a fourth. Upon his arrest six days later in Marseille, French police will discover a flag of the Islamic State among his possessions.

Dijon, December 20, 2014 — Forty-year-old Nacer Ben A. K. repeatedly rams his car into groups of pedestrians while yelling “Allahu Akbar!” Thirteen persons are injured, two seriously. According to initial reports, the perpetrator also shouts, “In the name of the children of Palestine!” But French authorities will later claim that he acted to avenge the “children of Chechnya.” Describing the perpetrator as “mentally unstable,” they will refuse to qualify the attacks as terrorism.

Paris, January 7, 2015 — The brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi massacre 11 people at the offices of the French weekly Charlie Hebdo, a satirical publication with a history of publishing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. The brothers have longstanding connections to France’s radical Islamic scene. As they walk to the getaway car, one of them raises his Kalashnikov to the sky and declares, “We have avenged the prophet!” The Kouachis will kill one more person, a policeman, while making their escape.

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Paris, January 8, 2015 — Amedy Coulibaly, an associate of the Kouachi brothers, kills policewoman Clarissa Jean-Philippe in the Parisian suburb of Montrouge.

Paris, January 9, 2015 — Coulibaly kills four hostages at a kosher supermarket near the Porte de Vincennes, before he is himself killed by police. In a posthumously published video, Coulibaly pledges allegiance to the Islamic State.

Nice, February 3, 2015 — Thirty-year-old Moussa Coulibaly (apparently no relation to Amedy) attacks three French soldiers with a knife. The soldiers are guarding a Jewish center. Coulibaly has recently been refused entry to Turkey and returned to France. It is presumed that he was attempting to reach Syria.

Saint-Quentin-Fallavier, June 26, 2015 — Yassin Salhi, a 35-year-old delivery man, decapitates his boss, Hervé Cornara, and hangs the head on a chain-link fence along with two flags inscribed with the shahada, or Islamic declaration of faith. He then proceeds to crash his delivery van into an industrial warehouse containing gas canisters, setting off an explosion. Before being arrested, Salhi takes a “selfie” posing with Cornara’s head and sends it to his friend Yunes-Sébastien V.-Z., a French Muslim convert who has joined the Islamic State in Syria.

Aboard the high-speed Thalys train en route to Paris from Brussels, August 21, 2015 — Ayoub El Khazzani, a 25-year-old Moroccan who lived briefly in France before spending time in ISIS-controlled territory in Syria, emerges from a restroom with a Kalashnikov in his hands. When a passenger grabs the gun, El Khazzani shoots him with a second weapon, a pistol, and takes it back. A greater carnage is only prevented by the jamming of the Kalashnikov and the quick action of three vacationing Americans, two of them soldiers, who wrestle El Khazzani to the ground and disarm him.

Paris, November 13, 2015 — One hundred and twenty-nine people perish in a series of coordinated attacks in the French capital and outside the Stade de France stadium in the suburb of Saint Denis. An additional victim will die of his wounds days later, bringing the death toll to 130. The Islamic State claims responsibility for the attacks.

 

The last year has witnessed an unprecedented wave of Islamic terror attacks in France, culminating in the November 13th Paris attacks, the deadliest terror attacks in Europe since the March 2004 Madrid train bombings. With the sole exception of Ayoub El Khazzani, the gunman on the Brussels-Paris high-speed train, all the known perpetrators of the attacks were French citizens and the great majority were born and raised in France. (None were immigrants: The perpetrators that were not born in France were born to French parents in neighboring Belgium.)

The precipitate identification of a neophyte Belgian jihadist, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, as the “mastermind” behind the Paris attacks has somewhat obscured their French authorship. But just as with the previous attacks, all the known perpetrators, including those who had been living in Belgium, were in fact French citizens. It is worth noting, moreover, that the perpetrators of the massacre at the Bataclan theater, by far the deadliest of the Paris attacks, were not only all French citizens, but all French citizens who were born and bred in France (and had been living there until leaving for Syria in 2013). It is likewise worth noting that the series of attacks cataloged above begins with an attack by a born-and-bred French jihadist on a Belgian target.

The undisputed icon and role model for this new generation of French jihadists is Mohamed Merah. In March 2012, the 23-year-old went on a killing spree in and around his native Toulouse, assassinating three French paratroopers in two separate incidents before pulling up in front of a Jewish school on his signature T-Max motorbike and executing three small children and a teacher at point-blank range. He died in a shootout with police three days later, following a 32-hour siege of his apartment.

Mehdi Nemmouche clearly sought to pay homage to Merah in the attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels—not only in his choice of targets, but also in his attempt to film the murders with a GoPro video camera strapped to his chest. (Nemmouche’s camera did not work, but Merah successfully filmed all his victims as he killed them.) Amedy Coulibaly likewise used a GoPro to film the first seven minutes of the hostage-taking at the kosher supermarket at Paris’s Porte de Vincennes, documenting three of the four murders he would commit before police raided the store. But he appears to have wanted to emulate Merah even more closely. His shooting of  policewoman Clarissa Jean-Philippe in Montrouge on the previous day occurred just around the corner from the Yaguel Yaacov Jewish school. It appears that Coulibaly had in fact been planning to kill Jewish children, and Jean-Philippe, who had been dispatched to the area on account of a minor traffic accident, was merely in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Like Merah, Coulibaly approached his target on a powerful high-end motorbike. Like Merah, he had with him both a machine gun and a pistol. Like Merah, he arrived around 8 a.m., when a maximum number of children would have been arriving at school. Only the unexpected presence of the police appears to have dissuaded Coulibaly, forcing him to resort to an improvised Plan B: the attack on the kosher supermarket the next day. Thus, as recorded on his GoPro camera, Coulibaly would attempt to explain his actions to the hostages by rhetorically asking them about their ethnic “origin.” When one replied “Jewish,” he exclaimed, “Voilà! You know why I’m here then! Allahu Akbar!”

 

In light of the remarkable upsurge of homegrown Islamic terror in France, a new exposé on Mohamed Merah by French journalist Alex Jordanov could hardly be more timely. Jordanov’s book is titled Merah, l’itinéraire secret—roughly, “Merah: The Untold Story”—and it lives up to its name. The author has been able to obtain access to the contents of the police case file on Merah, including numerous documents that have never before been made public: intelligence reports, interrogations of both Merah and suspected accomplices, wiretapped phone conversations, private e-mails, letters to family members, etc. He has supplemented his documentary research with interviews of people who knew or crossed paths with Merah. He also had the opportunity to view the video from Merah’s GoPro.

The mere fact that the contents of the Merah case file are so copious is itself revealing. Merah, after all, was killed just three days after the Jewish school massacre (the last murders he would commit). He appears to have become a suspect in the murders of the paratroopers one day earlier. Thus only four days separated his identification as a suspect and his death.

But the fact of the matter is that Merah, like almost all of his above-mentioned acolytes, was the subject of an “S” file identifying him as a threat to national security. He had long been under surveillance and he was repeatedly called in for questioning by both the police and the DCRI, the French domestic intelligence agency (since re-baptized as the DGSI). Indeed, in the end, his contact with the DCRI was so regular that the question can be raised as to whether French intelligence was not in fact attempting to use Merah as a willing or unwilling informant. As will be seen below, materials in his file support this conclusion.

Jordanov’s research provides a unique window onto Merah’s life and crimes, offering important insight into his motives and the unflinching brutality of the ideology to which he subscribed. But it also reveals mind-boggling failings on the part of French counterterrorism. The story of Mohamed Merah is, in effect, that of a train wreck waiting to happen or, to paraphrase his brother Abdelghani, a ticking time bomb waiting to explode—while French intelligence looked on.

Indeed, in conversation with negotiators during the siege of his apartment, Merah himself expressed amazement at the fact that he was able to carry out his attacks unhindered, attributing his success—and the failure of French authorities—to the will of Allah. To coax Merah out of the building, the police had called in none other than Hassan Loubane, the local DCRI officer in charge of Merah’s file. Alluding to his own carelessness in having sent e-mails to his family during a 2011 trip to an al-Qaeda stronghold in Pakistan’s notorious tribal regions, Merah chided Loubane and his colleagues for their failure to react. “Hamdulillah!”—praise God—Merah exclaimed, “Allah made you blind!” Jordanov confirms that French intelligence officials, thanks to their American colleagues at the National Security Agency, were aware of at least some of these e-mails.

In Jordanov’s account, the blindness and downright confusion of French authorities is already evident during the 18 months Merah spent in prison between December 2007 and October 2009 (which included a brief period of work release). Like so many of the current generation of French jihadists, Merah’s path to jihad passed through an extended phase of delinquency and petty crime. Jordanov describes his rap sheet as “endless.” It starts with a first recorded infraction in early 2005, when Merah was just 15, and comprises thefts, armed robberies, and assaults. The latter are notable not only for their savagery, but also for their gratuitousness. In 2006, for instance, Merah smashed his own uncle in the face with a fire extinguisher.

Jordanov quotes at length from letters Merah wrote from prison to his elder brother Abdelkader. Already well known to French intelligence at the time, Abdelkader mentored his younger brother in the ways of radical Islam. He is suspected, moreover, of having aided and abetted Mohamed in carrying out his attacks. He was arrested three days after his brother’s death and has been held without charge ever since.

Merah’s prison letters to Abdelkader are laced with invocations of Allah in phonetically transcribed Arabic, and they include calls for vengeance against the kuffar (unbelievers) and schoolboy-like recitations of Islamic fundamentalist or “Salafist” dogma. Thus, for instance, Merah writes:

The most truthful word [is] the book of ALLAH and the best path to follow is that of Mohammad and the worst thing is the innovator. Every innovator leads to straying [from the right path] and all straying leads to hell.

In their exchanges during the siege of his apartment, Merah himself would tell French intelligence officer Hassan Loubane that he had made up his mind in prison to join the jihad. A passage from one of his letters to Abdelkader alludes to this decision:

The first time I entered [prison] it brought me faith in ALLAH and this time wallahi [by Allah] it opened up my faith even more and I don’t regret anything, since now I will know very very exactly what I have to do when I get out . . .

A cellmate reports that “from morning to night” Merah would “blast” a CD featuring Islamic chants and “sounds of explosions.” Nonetheless, prison officials did not note any particular signs of radicalization.

More astonishingly still, they appear to have been unaware that Merah was in fact already the subject of an “S” file flagging him as a threat. He had turned up on the radar of French intelligence as a result of his many connections to prominent figures in the local radical Islamic scene in Toulouse. These included not only immediate family members like his brother Abdelkader and his elder sister Souad, but also Sabri Essid and Fabien Clain, both of whom would be convicted of forming part of a network dispatching jihadist recruits to fight American and allied forces in Iraq. Essid appeared last March in an Islamic State execution video filmed in Syria, and Clain is presumed to be the speaker whose voice is recorded in an Islamic State audio message claiming responsibility for the November Paris attacks.

Merah was even able to renew his French passport while in prison. The DCRI is “not informed,” Jordanov writes, “since no one at Seysses [the prison] knows that he has been identified as an ‘Islamo-delinquent’ and hence there is no reason to notify them.” Merah made ample use of the passport, as well as of a second Algerian passport in his possession: In April 2010, six months after his release, he set off on the first of four journeys in search of the jihad. In just eight months, from April to December 2010, he visited no fewer than 15 countries, including Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Israel, Afghanistan, and his parents’ native Algeria.

Merah explained to Loubane that he hoped to make contact with the Taliban in Afghanistan by getting himself kidnapped, whereupon he would reveal his mastery of the Koran and his jihadist sympathies. Thus, on November 22, 2010, he set off by minibus on the perilous journey from Kabul to Kandahar. But, as Merah told Loubane, “Allah decided differently.” He arrived safely in Kandahar and was immediately detained by Afghan security forces astonished to come across a French “tourist” visiting the historical bastion of the Taliban during wartime. The Afghanis in turn handed Merah off to American forces, who interrogated him and informed their French colleagues. At French request, Merah was placed on a plane back to Kabul. But according to Jordanov, it appears that no one was at the airport to meet him and he was free to continue his Afghan adventure.

By Merah’s own count, he was detained and questioned no less than three other times during his travels: in Algeria, at Mosul in Iraq, and in Israel. During a brief stay back home in Toulouse, in the summer of 2010, he beat up a teenage girl from his neighborhood, leaving her blind in one eye. Called in for questioning by the police after charges are filed, Merah failed to appear on numerous occasions. When he finally did turn up at the police station, in January 2011, he appeared contrite and insisted he was in Algeria the whole time, at his sick father’s side. In fact, he had been to Algeria on his first trip, which took place before the incident. But, in the meantime, he had been to more than a dozen other countries, and he had just returned from Afghanistan. Merah offered to come back with his passport to prove he was telling the truth. The police did not call his bluff.

 

According to the testimony of the local director of the DCRI in Toulouse, following his return from Afghanistan Merah was placed under intense surveillance, including direct observation of his movements, along with wiretaps and monitoring of his Internet use. Nonetheless, seven months later, in August 2011, he departed unhindered for Pakistan on his fourth and final voyage. This time he found what he was looking for, finally making contact with seasoned mujahedin who were prepared to take him under their wings, provide him weapons training, and give shape and direction to his jihadist longings. Merah identified his “emir” as Abu Yahya al-Libi. A fiery orator whose assumed surname refers to his Libyan origins, Libi had risen to prominence as one of al-Qaeda’s most influential ideologues before being killed by an American drone strike in Pakistan in June 2012.

But in conversation with Loubane, Merah admitted that he never himself met Libi, and that the high-ranking al-Qaeda leader was, more precisely, something like “the emir of the emir of his emir.” Jordanov’s investigations identify Merah’s actual emir as Moez Garsallaoui, the Tunisian-born leader of the Pakistan-based al-Qaeda affiliate Jund al-Khilafah (“Soldiers of the Caliphate”). In two separate communiqués, one issued on the very day of his death, the group claimed Merah as one of its own. Garsallaoui, incidentally, was reportedly killed in a drone attack four months after Libi.

But whatever organization “adopted” Merah in Pakistan, it appears to have been in conversation with his mentors that the idea was hatched to have the young jihadist wannabe return home to strike inside France. “I spoke to a brother from al-Qaeda,” Merah told Loubane, “. . . and he told me, ‘Go back to France . . . kill them in France . . . It’s more important.’ And I stepped back and thought about it and I said to myself, ‘Well, go ahead. I’m going to try my luck.’”

Thus, on October 19, 2011, Merah returned to France, already with vague plans to attack French servicemen in retaliation for the participation of French troops in NATO operations in Afghanistan. The idea of adding Jewish children to his list of “legitimate” targets appears to have come from Merah himself.

Astonishingly, however, following questioning of Merah just a few weeks later, in mid-November, a counterterror expert from the DCRI’s Parisian headquarters actually recommended that the surveillance of Merah be stopped. What is more, the DCRI officer described Merah as “interesting” for French intelligence in light of his travels: an apparent reference to a desire to use him as an informant.

Was this desire transformed into reality? Leaked telephone records show that the DCRI contacted Merah at least three more times in late 2011 and early 2012. Indeed, perhaps now alarmed that the interesting “traveler” might have become a mass murderer, it tried unsuccessfully to reach him twice just hours after the Jewish school massacre on March 19th.

The blindness of French security services continued even after Merah had begun his killing spree, indeed even after he had been identified as a suspect and located. Jordanov describes Merah casually slipping out of his apartment on the evening of March 20th—this despite a hundred French police and intelligence officers already staking out the premises, who somehow failed to see him go. It is only thanks to the fact that Merah came back a few hours later—on his own account, to retrieve materials that he needed for another planned attack—that a French SWAT team did not end up raiding an empty apartment. His return, incidentally, also appears to have gone unperceived.

Merah told Loubane, his intelligence contact, that a minivan full of French gendarmes drove right past him as he was in the process of committing his first murder: the execution of French paratrooper Imad Ibn Ziaten in a deserted parking lot on March 11, 2012. (The gendarmerie is a national police force.) Merah said that the driver of the van looked him “straight in the eyes.” “Your gendarmes don’t even intervene,” Merah mockingly told Loubane, “They could have arrested me and look [what happened]!”

Jordanov confirms the presence of the van in Merah’s GoPro footage, and that the driver did in fact look at Merah. He describes Merah revving the engine of his motorbike to make his getaway and then shutting it off when he realized that the gendarmes had driven on. He walked back to Ibn Ziaten’s dead body, looked down at it, and said, “This is Islam, my brother. You kill my brothers, I kill you. Allahu Akbar!” He then sped off. Along the way, he ecstatically shouted, “He has joined the angel of death! He has joined the angel of death! I have no fear of death! . . . Allahu Akbar! La ilaha illallah! [There is no god but Allah].”

Four days later, Merah killed two more paratroopers and seriously wounded a third outside their barracks in the town of Montauban. Again, he continued to film as he made his getaway on his motorbike. “The road rolls by in the images,” Jordanov writes, “He [Merah] rejoices. Numerous satisfied cries of ‘Allah Akbar’ are the soundtrack to this macabre film.”

Jordanov’s observations echo those made by Merah himself in conversation with Loubane. “I felt my heart at peace,” Merah said about his feelings after shooting the paratroopers in Montauban, “and . . . since it was at peace, I wanted to do it again . . . .” Merah noted that he felt “better and better” every time he killed.

 

It has become common for French authorities to describe the perpetrators of what appear to be Islamic terror attacks as “mentally unstable,” as if this designation somehow abrogated or diminished the terrorist character of their acts. But it is impossible to read Jordanov’s account of Merah’s life—or indeed Merah’s own words—without concluding that by any normal standards Merah was somewhat crazy.

There is no doubt that not just Islam, but a particularly regressive and radical variety of Islam, was taken seriously in Merah’s family. His brother Abdelghani, the anti-Islamist black sheep of the family, has said that Mohamed “bathed” in anti-Semitism from his earliest childhood.

Yet Merah also engaged in decidedly “un-Islamic” behavior right up to the end. Thus, for instance, he is known to have gone to one of his favorite nightclubs, the Bahia, just two days before the Jewish school massacre. Youssef el-Baroumi was a bouncer at the Bahia who knew Merah and his family from the Izards neighborhood where Merah grew up. In a deposition, Baroumi noted that Abdelkader, Mohamed’s Salafist elder brother, would not even set foot in a grocery store that sold pork, let alone a nightclub. A thrill-seeker with a passion for fast cars and motorbikes, Mohamed’s style appears to have been more inner-city “gangster” than pious Salafist.

Moreover, as Jordanov’s survey of his troubled youth shows, Merah was prone to outbursts of extreme violence long before his Islamic “rebirth” in prison. One is left wondering, finally, just how much Islam had to do with the violence that he would go on to commit in its name. In form, of course, it had everything to do with it. But the “inside story” of Mohamed Merah suggests that radical Islam merely provided a conduit, giving legitimacy and a higher meaning to violent impulses that had their roots in the frustrations and resentments and dysfunction that are so typical of life in French urban ghettos like Izards.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of young French people from similar backgrounds have followed in Merah’s footsteps, flocking to jihadist-controlled parts of Syria to join ISIS or the Nusra Front, Syria’s official al-Qaeda affiliate. Like Merah, they are “not afraid of death” and prepared to take the risk that they too will meet a violent end. However comforting it might be to place all the onus on Islam, Merah’s story reveals failings not only in French counterterrorism, but in French society itself. Mohamed Merah is the poster boy for a veritable lost generation of disaffected French urban youth, more and more of whose members are finding their calling in jihad.

John Rosenthal is a European-based journalist and political analyst who writes on EU politics and transatlantic security issues. He is the author of The Jihadist Plot: The Untold Story of Al-Qaeda and the Libyan Rebellion. Follow his work at www.trans-int.com.

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