Intensive sleuthing, videotape, a scooter repairman, and apparent good fortune helped French police apprehend a serial killer hours before he said he planned to kill again.
Mohammed Merah, a 24-year-old Algerian who claims ties to Al Qaeda, found himself under siege in a Toulouse apartment at 5:40 a.m. today, only hours after phoning a French television news station to give a concise and clear explanation for his decision to kill seven people, including three children, and to reveal that he planned similar operations in cities across France.
France, which was in a state of apprehension yesterday over an elusive unidentified killer and on its highest state of alert (scarlet), now has not only had several relatives and friends of Mr. Merah under detention, but also volumes of information and motives about the suspect, who was still engaged in a standoff with police as of press time. His mother, two brothers, a friend, and a girlfriend are all under police custody.
Merah told TV news station France 24 he was allied with Al Qaeda and upholding the honor of his Islamic faith. He also said the killing of the three paratroopers and four Jewish individuals was "necessary” and that he planned to do similar acts in Toulouse again, as well as Paris, Marseilles, and Lyon, according to Ebba Kalondo, the night editor at France 24 who took the call, made from a phone booth at 1 a.m.
“He wanted to qualify some of the details about the bullet casings,” said Ms. Kalondo. He told the editor he would have acted earlier but funding for his attacks – “from inside and outside France” – only recently became available. The funding was for an assortment of weapons and other operational necessities, he said.
French Interior Minister Claude Gueant told reporters in a press conference today that Merah was identified on March 19, the day of the shooting, by tracking an IP address he used to purchase a scooter from the first victim, a French paratrooper named Imad Ibn-Ziater. But Paris prosecutor François Molins said Merah's actual whereabouts – a Toulouse apartment less than two miles from the Jewish school he terrorized – were not discovered until yesterday.
Prosecutors painted a picture of a man who had a violent personality and “mental disorders as a minor.” Merah moved around, living in several different places, and is “of modest means… he can rent by the month and has several places to stay,” Mr. Molins said. Video analysis of his actions at the Jewish school two days ago helped police identify him, implying they may have consulted violent offenders lists. Molins said the young man would stay alone in his room for long periods of time and watched grisly martyrdom films.
The police achieved a break in the case when they checked lists of French citizens who visited Afghanistan and Pakistan, which Merah had done, three times evidently, and investigators cross checked it with lists of young French known to have jihadi sentiments or identified with violent mujahideen actions.
Another major break in the case came when a scooter repairman reported to police that a man entered his shop, asking whether a spray paint job on a scooter would demobilize the scooter tracking system and where the tracker was. The repairman refused to give the latter information and phoned authorities, according to Molins, the prosecutor.
Authorities initially reported that Merah had a cache of explosives in his car but could not confirm this during the press conference. They said they found a car with four weapons, including an Uzi and a pump-action rifle, and that they also tracked down the scooter and helmet used in the attacks.
The prosecutor said Merah “doesn’t have the soul of a martyr, but wants to kill and stay alive,” although he told France 24 there were only two ways he would stop killing: “prison, where he could hold his head up high,” or death.
The prosecutor’s general picture of Merah clashed with the tone of the man who called France 24, although French authorities say Merah has confirmed that he had the conversation. Kalondo said that on the phone Merah was calm, "extremely well-spoken ... very polite ... used no strong language ... was unruffled and sure of himself.
"He said he wanted to avenge his brothers and sisters in Palestine" and was angered by the French law banning the wearing of the burqa, the full-length veil worn by some Muslim women, in public.