Mohammed Merah died alone on Thursday morning, gripping a submachine gun, plummeting from his apartment balcony with a bullet in his head. Even before his body had struck the pavement, though, there were grave questions about just how alone he really was when he methodically killed seven people in southwest France in the space of nine days this month.
While French prosecutors painted a picture of a lone, psychologically disturbed figure who created his own brand of extremism with little help from others, there were open questions as to how a 23-year-old petty criminal from Toulouse received financing for the considerable arsenal – including hard-to-obtain assault rifles and machine guns, and a number of vehicles – used in his terror spree. And reports began to emerge that he may have been in contact with a wide range of radical individuals and organizations, even if he wasn’t a formal member of a group.
There is a widespread concern in France that other young, economically marginalized Arab men are becoming radicalized on their own, either in France’s prisons (whose populations are overwhelmingly of Arab origin) or through online contacts.
This was enough for President Nicolas Sarkozy to declare on Thursday that he will pass a law – if he wins re-election in the presidential vote set to begin on April 22 – making it illegal to have contact with Islamist radicals.
“Extreme Islam will be repressed by a law to be passed after this election,” Mr. Sarkozy said in a press conference shortly after Mr. Merah’s death after a 20-hour siege. “Anyone who consults a website that glorifies hate and violence will be punished under the law.” Those who go abroad for extremist training will be punished, he added, and an investigation opened into the spread of militant ideas in French prisons.
“We cannot allow our prisons,” the French president said, “to be breeding grounds for the spread of these hateful ideologies.”
Mr. Sarkozy also met with Muslim and Jewish leaders and called for an end to the harsh divisions between France’s minority communities, at the same time as calling for harsh law-and-order policies of the sort that helped him win the presidency in 2007 when the country was still reeling from riots of unemployed youth in the suburbs.
“Unity and coming together must be our priorities,” he said, “and firmness must be our way to serve those values.”
French officials struggled to explain why they had failed to notice Mr. Merah’s increasingly radical behaviour – including one reported incident two years ago when he waved a sword in the street and shouted, “I’m with al-Qaeda” – and credited his lone-wolf approach.
Paris prosecutor François Molin argued strenuously on Thursday afternoon that Mr. Merah had been a lone actor, radicalized in his own fashion based on a vague set of religious beliefs centred on Salafism, a fundamentalist belief in a return of a world Islamic caliphate, he picked up in juvenile prison.
“He had an atypical Salafist leaning. ... We know he was radicalized during his stay in prison,” said Mr. Molin, adding that this helped answer the pressing question of why French authorities had let him fall out of their sights after his trips to the Afghan-Pakistani border area and despite his lengthy criminal record.
“He didn’t follow the usual route into Afghanistan and Pakistan using facilitators or groups known to authorities,” Mr. Molin said. “He went his own way.”
He also provided new details of Mr. Merah’s erratic behaviour in prison, where “he was violent with other inmates and made a suicide attempt.”
French officials confirmed to reporters that Mr. Merah’s name was on the United States terrorist no-fly list and had been there for several years, after he had been thrown out of Afghanistan and flown back to France by NATO officials.
There were reports of even deeper ties. Intelligence officials speaking to the Paris newspaper Le Monde claimed that Mr. Merah’s passport included visits to Israel, Syria, Iraq and Jordan.
Police said that Mr. Merah’s trip to Iraq would have been organized by his brother Abdelkader, who was considered an experienced Islamist who had been radicalized in an Islamic school in Cairo.
But there are few signs that Mr. Merah himself had very deep contacts with any radical organizations. His visits to the Waziristan border area of Pakistan, where he claimed to have been trained, were brief and fleeting: His trip in 2011 ended abruptly when he contracted Hepatitis A, according to the prosecutor. And Pakistani intelligence officials told reporters that they had no record of him – though foreign-born fighters usually are noticed.
It sounds as if he was politically angry rather than spiritually committed and that this anger manifested itself when he returned to France. It is a profile that fits many jihadists: The most devout believers, it is generally thought, rarely become terrorists.
Pundits weigh in
Richard Prasquier, head of the CRIF, or Representative Council of French Jews: “There is no link between the campaign and what happened. Nobody grabs a child by the hair so he can put a bullet in her head because he heard something about religious slaughter of animals.”
The chief rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim: “Muslims like Jews, Jews like Muslims, and condemn all confusion that might be made between the international political situation in the Middle East and the monstrous act that ... has horrified all French.”
Mohammed Moussaoui, the president of the French Council for the Muslim Faith, “It is absolutely excluded that we confuse this character – and the Islamist, jihadist, al-Qaeda-linked movement he represents – and the Islam of France, which is a religion like all other religions. These acts are in total contradiction with the foundations of this religion.”
Marine Le Pen, candidate of the far-right National Front: “We have underestimated, I think, the rise of radical Islam in our country. We didn't want to see it, out of weakness or for electoral reasons, that recruiting is going on in our neighbourhoods by political-religious groups.”
Francois Bayrou, centrist candidate: “I hope that the campaign changes in tone and fundamentals. For months, we’ve had a campaign of smokescreens, a campaign focused on secondary issues. … I don’t want us to fall back in the same rut.”