The killing of three Jewish children and a teacher in Toulouse, France, might never have happened, it emerged over the weekend, if gunman Mohammed Merah had murdered his original target on March 19. Before being killed in a shootout at his apartment, Merah told police he did not set out to slaughter his victims at a school in the southern French city, but had “improvised” after missing a chance to kill a French soldier.
The school murders, following Merah’s previous execution-style killing of three soldiers who served in Afghanistan, have traumatized France ahead of its presidential elections.
During a 32-hour siege, Merah told police that after gunning down the three paratroopers, he had already identified another member of the military in Toulouse as his next target. After turning up to kill the man on the morning of March 19, he discovered his target had left home earlier than expected.
In the spur of the moment, Merah turned his high-powered scooter around and headed for a nearby Jewish school. He dismounted and put the scooter on its stand, before shooting at point-blank range at three children under the age of 10 waiting for a school bus.
It has also been revealed how Merah, who claimed to be linked to an al-Qaeda fringe group, had fooled investigators after being summoned to explain visits to Pakistan and Afghanistan in November last year. The 23-year-old claimed he had gone on holiday to find a bride and showed them tourist snaps he had loaded onto a pen drive to verify his story.
Once released, Merah set about collecting an arsenal of weapons he later used in his killing spree, including three .45 Colt handguns, an Uzi and a pump-action shotgun.
Merah’s older brother, Abdelkader, and the brother’s girlfriend, who were arrested last Wednesday, have been transferred to Paris for questioning by France’s specialist anti-terrorist officers. Abdelkader, 29, is said to have denied encouraging Merah to commit the murders, but was reported to have said he was “proud” of his acts.
Merah’s mother, who was arrested at the same time, was released on Saturday. Police are trying to determine if Merah had any help in carrying out the murders ,which have refocused attention on the threat of radical Muslim terrorists.
Bernard Squarcini, head of French intelligence services, said Merah’s story when he was brought in for questioning in November had been convincing, adding that Merah had shown “excellent co-operation, education and courtesy.”
Merah was killed in a hail of fire at his apartment in Toulouse. He had cut off communication and was hiding in the bathroom, hoping to fool police into thinking he had committed suicide. When police entered the apartment, he burst out firing in all directions. Merah had laid out a series of obstacles, including a washing machine and a large black leather sofa. On the apartment’s balcony were materials for making gasoline bombs.
The revelations will raise questions about how Merah succeeded in amassing such an arsenal of weapons — and while unemployed and on benefits — without raising the suspicions of the intelligence services who were supposed to have him under surveillance. The investigation will focus on how an unemployed petty thief could afford an apartment that cost 500 euros (US$670) a month, as well as a rented garage and two hire cars.