No sign French suspect had al-Qaeda ties: official

No sign French suspect had al-Qaeda ties: official

PARIS - The Associated Press
No sign French suspect had al-Qaeda ties: official

A mother and her daughter pay tribute in front of bunches of flowers laid on the ground at the "Ozar Hatorah" Jewish school on March 23, 2012 in Toulouse. AFP Photo

French authorities have no evidence that al-Qaeda commissioned a French gunman to go on a killing spree that left seven people dead, or that he had any contact with terrorist groups, a senior official said today.

France's prime minister and other officials have been fending off suggestions that anti-terrorism authorities fell down on the job in monitoring 23-year-old Mohamed Merah, who had been known to them for years before he went on three deadly shooting attacks this month from a motorcycle.

Merah, a 23-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent, was killed in a dramatic gunfight with police Thursday after a 32-hour standoff at his Toulouse apartment with police. Prosecutors said he filmed himself carrying out the attacks that began March 11, killing three Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi and three French paratroopers with close-range shots to the head. Another Jewish student and another paratrooper were wounded.

A senior official who is close to the investigation into Merah told The Associated Press there was no sign he had "trained or been in contact with organized groups or jihadists." Merah had traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and prosecutors said he had claimed contacts with al-Qaeda and to have trained in the Pakistan militant stronghold of Waziristan. He had been on a U.S. no-fly list since 2010.
The official said Merah might have made the claim because al-Qaeda is a well-known "brand." The official said authorities have "absolutely no element allowing us to believe that he was commissioned by al-Qaeda to carry out these attacks." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy's spy chief, meanwhile, said Friday that Merah had told negotiators that he only attacked the Jewish school after missing his original target a French soldier.

Ange Mancini, Sarkozy's intelligence adviser, said on French TV that Merah said he had wanted to kill a soldier Monday in Toulouse but arrived too late and instead besieged a Jewish school nearby.

Mancini told France-24 TV that "it wasn't the school that he wanted to attack," calling the school shooting "opportunistic." That account appears to contradict Merah's claim to negotiators that he went on his rampage to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children as well as to protest the French army's involvement in Afghanistan and a French law banning Islamic face veils.

A little-known jihadist group claimed responsibility for one of the killings. The SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors Internet messages, said Jund al-Khilafah, based in Kazakhstan, said "Yusuf of France" had led an attack Monday, the day of the Jewish school shootings.

The French official said the claim appeared opportunistic.

Investigators looking for possible accomplices decided Friday to keep Merah's older brother, his mother and the brother's girlfriend in custody for another day for further questioning, the Paris prosecutor's office said.

The head of the DCRI intelligence agency was quoted in the Le Monde newspaper as saying there was little sign that Merah's family was involved. Bernard Squarcini said Merah told police that he didn't trust his brother or mother. Police also said his mother declined to get involved in police negotiations Wednesday with her son, saying she had no influence over him.

Merah was questioned by French intelligence officers last November after his second trip to Afghanistan, and was cooperative and provided a USB key with tourist-like photos of his trip, the senior official said.

The official said when Merah was under surveillance last year, he was not seen contacting any radicals and went to nightclubs, not mosques. People who knew him confirmed that he was at a nightclub in the last few weeks.

Merah told negotiators during the police standoff that he was able to buy an impressive arsenal of weapons thanks to years of being involved in petty theft, the official said.

The picture painted by the official and the chief of the DCRI intelligence agency was of a self-radicalized young man with signs of a split personality.

For years, intelligence services have worried most of all about lone-wolf terrorist who radicalize alone and operate below the radar. Merah told police during the standoff that he was trained "by a single person" when he was in Waziristan, Squarcini was quoted as saying in Le Monde.

"Not in training centers, where he could have been singled out because he spoke French," Squarcini was quoted as saying.

Some politicians, French media and Toulouse residents questioned why authorities didn't stop Merah before he started his killing spree.

Socialist presidential candidate Francois Hollande said questions need to be asked about a "failure" in counterterrorist monitoring. Other candidates did the same, and even French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said "clarity" was needed on why he wasn't arrested earlier.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon told RTL radio Friday that authorities "at no moment" suspected Merah would be dangerous despite his long record of crime and his time in prison.

"The fact of belonging to a Salafist (ultraconservative Muslim) organization is not unto itself a crime. We must not mix religious fundamentalism and terrorism, even if naturally we well know the links that unite the two," Fillon said.

In response to the slayings, Fillon said President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative government is working on new anti-terrorism legislation that would be drafted within two weeks.

Families of the victims expressed frustration that Merah was not taken alive.

"Imad's parents feel that the justice they were expecting was stolen from them," said Mehana Mouhou, lawyer for the family of the first paratrooper killed, Imad Ibn-Ziaten. "His mother wanted an answer to the question, 'why did he kill my son?'" The chief of the elite RAID police unit, which conducted the raid, told French media on Friday that he was probably killed by a sniper.

"We tried to exhaust him all night before retaking the apartment," Amaury de Hauteclocque was quoted as saying by Le Monde. His commandos slipped into the apartment but Merah was waiting for them.

"I'd given the order to only fire back with stun grenades. But as he moved through the apartment he tried to kill my men who were on the balcony. It's probably one of the snipers that got him," he said.
He said on RTL radio that 15 men had taken part in the assault and described the apartment like "a battle zone," with furniture piled up as a barricade.

He said if they had wanted to nab Merah "dead or alive," police would have stormed his apartment immediately instead of waiting 32 hours.

"If we have four injured among my men, it's because we tried until the end to get him alive," he said.