The French gunman who killed French soldiers and attacked a Jewish school last spring in Toulouse said he was told at a terrorist training camp that he should launch strikes against Canada, a new audio recording made public Sunday revealed.
Mohamed Merah made the revelation while negotiating with a French counterterrorism officer after he was surrounded by a police tactical squad at his apartment on March 21. The 32-hour standoff ended in a shootout and his death.
A recording of Mr. Merah’s final conversations was leaked to French television network TF1, which broadcast excerpts Sunday.
There was only one mention of Canada in the leaked recording but it is significant because, if Mr. Merah’s account of his training camp experience is true, it signals that the country remains a target of Islamic extremists even after Canadian troops ended their combat mission in Afghanistan in July, 2011.
“I was sent by al-Qaeda. I was trained by the Pakistani Talibans. There’s a whole organization behind this,” Mr. Merah is heard saying.
Describing how he spent two months in a camp in Pakistan, Mr. Merah said he met French, Chinese, Tajik, Afghan, Pakistani, American, German and Spanish jihadists.
“There are brothers who deal with sending brothers to other countries. They proposed to me to launch strikes in America, in Canada, et cetera,” Mr. Merah said.
He told the police officer that they wanted him to target diplomats, including the Indian ambassador or a female ambassador whose name he couldn’t remember, along with media bosses.
But Mr. Merah, a French national of Algerian descent, said he felt it would be easier for him to operate in Toulouse, in southern France, where he grew up.
In a statement released Sunday night, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls confirmed that a recording had been made of the negotiations but never officially released.
“This broadcast is unfortunate as it happens while the judicial system is still investigating the matter,” the statement said.
Mr. Merah’s case has been cited as an example of the tactic now favoured by al-Qaeda, involving the use of operatives who arouse less suspicion and don’t stand out as much because they have passports from Western countries and work alone.
Richard Fadden, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, voiced such concerns before a Senate committee last April.
He said between 45 to 60 Canadians have gone to Somalia, Yemen or the Afghan-Pakistani border to train as terrorists, and warned of an al-Qaeda shift to a “lone-wolf” style of operation.
Mr. Merah, 24, had been to the Afghanistan-Pakistan region twice and was on the radar of French intelligence services since returning home.
The French authorities interviewed him but came under criticism after his killing rampage for not keeping closer tabs on him.
In the recording, Mr, Merah, who had a long record for petty crimes, also said he decided to go to a terrorist camp two years ago, after his last stint in jail.
He said he was offered training in explosives but opted instead to learn to use firearms because he feared he would draw the attention of authorities if he tried to acquire bomb-making chemicals.
In the audio recording, Mr. Merah spoke at length with a counterterrorism officer who had interviewed him on his return from Pakistan.
He mocked the officer, whom he called Hassan, by referring to his own claim in their meeting that he had gone to Pakistan and Afghanistan for tourism.
Repeating a phrase often used by jihadists, Mr. Merah warned Hassan that he wasn’t afraid of dying: “I love death like you love life.”
He said his prime targets were soldiers because of his country’s presence in Afghanistan. Police and intelligence officers were fair game too, he told Hassan, saying that he had planned eventually to lure his interlocutor and then shoot him “right in the head.”