French gunman had no Al Qaeda connection, says official

Mohamed Merah claimed to have Al Qaeda contacts and training in Pakistan. French officials say there's no evidence of an Al Qaeda connection.

By , Associated Press

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    Flowers, candles, and a teddy bear are laid outside the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school, in Toulouse, France, Friday March 23, 2012 after three children and a rabbi gunned down on Monday.
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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 French official said Friday.

The official, who is close to the investigation into the attacks by 23-year-old Mohamed Merah, said there is no sign he had "trained or been in contact with organized groups or jihadists."

Merah was killed in a gunfight with police Thursday after a 32-hour standoff with police. Prosecutors said he filmed himself carrying out three attacks since March 11, killing three Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi and three French paratroopers with close-range shots to the head.

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He 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.

A little-known jihadist group claimed responsibility for the killings, but the official said the claim appeared opportunistic and that authorities say Merah had never heard of the group.

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.

France's prime minister, meanwhile, fended off suggestions that anti-terrorism authorities fell down on the job in monitoring Merah, who had been known to them for years.

Some politicians, French media and Toulouse residents questioned why authorities didn't stop him before March 11, when he committed the first of the three deadly shooting attacks.

Socialist presidential candidate Francois Hollande said questions need to be asked about an eventual "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 a long criminal record.

"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.

Merah told negotiators he killed them to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children and to protest the French army's involvement in Afghanistan as well as France's law against the Islamic face veil.

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, meanwhile, were frustrated that Merah was not taken alive.

"Imad's parents feel that the justice they were expecting was stolen from them," said lawyer 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 lawyer also questioned why hours of negotiations between police and Merah failed Wednesday. Merah repeatedly promised to surrender, then eventually changed his mind.

"They could have very well not killed him. There were no hostages. The neighbors were evacuated," Mouhou said.

Cathy Fontaine, 43, who runs a beauty salon down the street from the building in Toulouse where Merah was killed, said France should have a "zero tolerance" policy for people who seek out training in Afghanistan and potentially refuse to let them back in the country.

"An individual who goes to be trained in Afghanistan, you have to follow him," she said.

___

Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.

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